Six years after her MSc and four years after a gruelling post at BMW, Vesna took a very well-paid job as a Technical Trainer with Aleph-Null (who worked with innovative electronics in the automotive industry and related sectors) and moved, with Sean, to Vienna.
Sean, a cultural commentator with the uncanny ability to cut through exactly what was wrong with the long-awaited follow-up to a decades-old franchise of first-person-shooter video games for one hundred and fifty pounds an article, had always felt outshone by his partner.
Vesna, with her serious training and real job and priorities, marrying him notwithstanding, seemed far more in-keeping with the 21st century than he did. If Vesna had taken a careful look around and decided how best to use her talents in the pursuit of a meaningful, challenging life rewarded by fiscal and material comfort, Sean was committed to ephemera, poking around in the dying embers of the arts in search of what? A charred piece of meat? The nub of a melted trinket? It was difficult to see how their friends could conclude anything else. But a lot of their friends had babies and were busy forming tenuous alliances with other people who had babies, so maybe they didn’t think about him or Vesna at all.
‘I’ll be a kept husband!’ Sean said, repeatedly, in company, until it wasn’t funny anymore. Vesna said that he could probably deal with it.
‘I probably can deal with it.’
‘Something you need to get used to,’ said Vesna, ‘is differentiating between the expectation – that is to say, all the garbage you’ve filled your head with, from sitcoms to video games – and actual lived experience.’
As part of Vesna’s remuneration package they were given a flat in the converted Swedish Embassy; it was cold and beautiful, with floor-to-ceiling windows in its off-yellow interior walls. The dark tables were elegant and unfussy but still staunchly impractical – brushing past, one could knock over everything.
He could handle it. He got very into coffee. He worked slowly on an article about games within games, and why hidden secrets, or the mere implication of a hidden secret, fascinated and disturbed its audience so. Video games which required the player to visit some real-world location, or undertake to understand that it was, in fact, a game, or tinker with the systems file of their own computer in order to complete them… These would produce reams of speculative discussion and copy, to which Sean was happy to contribute.
The flat itself contained many locked panels and a small door at the end of the pantry which had been painted shut, but when he walked into the communal hallway to check it out, it appeared to give onto a wall. If that was the correct position of the pantry, which he couldn’t quite be sure of, the view from the hall window did not match the view from the kitchen. It was hard to get your bearings in a new place; for days he was perturbed by what he perceived as two opposite windows giving the same view before realising the corridor between the living space and bedroom contained a deliberately confusing double turn. Feeling, himself, out of place, gave him a special sensitivity to writing about games, which tried to produce such feelings by design.
Sean made two friends among the husbands and partners of Aleph-Null’s senior employees, Gary and Eustace. Gary and Eustace seemed to be willfully unaware of each other’s existence, as if they moved about in separate dimensions. Once he arranged to introduce them over coffee and pastries with Vesna, on a rare Sunday afternoon when she wasn’t working, in a large, open bakery café. They didn’t even look at each other, Gary and Eustace, let alone exchange a word.
(‘That was weird’, he said to Vesna, later.
‘What was? They’re just men!’ she said.)
Gary was a lumbering, pot-bellied man who would wear a yellow or green T-shirt with an old hoodie. Gary was, himself, a chemical engineer, but had suffered a bout of glandular fever in his late twenties – from his perspective this was not glandular fever but the result of exposure to an unusual combination of toxins in his workplace over many years – and had never fully recovered. ‘Thankfully, Sarah had the real career anyway so now I just follow her around like an old Jack Russell,’ he told Sean.
Eustace, by contrast, was a tall, beautiful creature who wore a different scarf every day.
With Gary, Sean would sit at an ill-appointed wedge-shaped bar drinking funny-shaped bottles of Trappist beer until the room span. Gary would sing This means nothing to meeeeeeeee and then look reflective and melancholy in a way that only a vulgar man could and say that Vienna wasn’t really all it was cracked up to be. Maybe nowhere was.
Maybe nowhere was, Sean would agree.
Eustace, though, had been in Vienna for four years and would never admit to a moment’s ennui. He described everything as ‘breathtaking’ with a variable but ambiguous degree of irony. ‘Sean, you mean to tell me you’re yet to see the imperial furniture collection in the Hofmobiliendepot? I think I’d only been here half an hour before I was drawn inexorably to it. Come along at once.’
Eustace was a music scholar – this he insisted on whenever he was introduced as a composer – and lived off an inheritance of over three million pounds. ‘Because, you see, I don’t really have to do anything. And I think it would be unspeakably crass to pretend otherwise. Annabelle doesn’t either, but, well…’
Sometimes Eustace would joke about killing himself, but the methods and locations would be so extravagant and complicated that Sean gathered he was joking. ‘I imagine you’ll be long gone by then, anyway,’ Eustace would say, gazing out across the river. ‘Isn’t it breathtaking?’
Eustace had warmed to Sean almost immediately. Sean had noted throughout his life that men like Eustace and Gary seemed drawn to him for reasons he didn’t care to consider too deeply. He suspected it had to do with his being radically agreeable: he didn’t like being this way, would rather have been considered strong-willed, or a man of character, opinionated, even.
But the fact was that other people frightened him and he wanted to stay on everyone’s good side. Had this fear made him nothing more than a flattering, well-lit mirror ready to reflect back the finest motives, sentiments, unconscious desires?… After all, he seemed to radiate, silently, like the voice of God, How could you have done anything else? And what a good fist you’ve made of it, all things considered.
‘An enabler,’ Vesna would say. ‘A nodding dog. People like you because you always take their side on everything.’
‘Except you,’ he’d say, and she’d punch him on the shoulder.
Eustace would frequently make him little gifts. ‘I bought you a snow globe. Don’t drink it.’ And he made it his duty to try to educate Sean – ‘You’ll be my project, if that’s not rather patronising’ – with frequent trips to the Volksoper. ‘We ought to go daily if you can stand it.’
Sean did his best to imply that what he lacked in schooling he made up for in something which couldn’t be taught, which is to say spirit, sensitivity, an intuition of the sublime. And if this manifested as merely a passive willingness to go along with anything, an empty but well-bound notebook Eustace could fill in, all the better.
Motive tended to disintegrate if you looked at it too closely. The search for a golden idol – which obsessed the characters and led along the way to a brutal murder, a crime of passion or a mercy killing, which would itself temporarily take over the narrative and require solving by the player-protagonist – was ultimately nothing but a golden idol, a tchotchke, a MacGuffin with sentimental or monetary value: and if monetary, so what? Might the same ends not have been achieved via simpler embezzlements? And if sentimental, all the worse. If symbolic and ceremonial, then of interest only to the elect in their own imaginations. And if genuinely magical, whether cursed or blessed, the golden idol would be, primarily, the portal, the key or the invitation to a secret society.
Sean’s interest was in games which, themselves, occupied a similar space to the golden idols. In The Eaters of Fire you could choose to kill or spare a monstrous character named Belial, who appeared around halfway through. If you spared Belial he would reappear throughout the game, steal items from your inventory, possess other central characters and influence their behaviour in a way that obstructed your progress, eventually rendering it impossible to complete; the ‘true ending’ unattainable. But if you killed him the game would end instantly and every time you tried to start it again a screen would appear informing you that the game no longer existed. The game would implant some indelible code on your machine meaning that even if you bought a new copy, the same screen would be displayed. It was rumoured that you could go so far as to buy or borrow a new computer, purchase a separate copy of the game and boot it up again and no! but yes! you’d see the same black screen with a faded image of Belial, smiling, informing you that Eaters of Fire was not a real game and you ought to try to get your money back.
‘That’s the kind of shit I’m into,’ he told Gary, four bottles deep into a sweet black beer with an 8.9% abv. ‘I like games that mess with your head.’
‘Sounds good,’ said Gary.
‘I mean, for years it was terrible,’ said Sean, tearing a strip off his beer bottle and tapping the dregs into his glass. ‘Studios – publishers – they just called all the shots; we forgot it was the creators who had the actual ideas. But the publishers just wanted to make a product that would sell millions. Like early cinema, meddling, fucking up the stories, insisting that certain things had to happen. Everything was so boring. But that’s changing now.’
Exactly what Gary was into wasn’t clear to Sean – everyone had to be into something, surely – but it wasn’t video games. And with Eustace he daren’t mention anything about his profession, as he felt embarrassed that he had given his life to something so trashy.
Eustace, always happy to parody any element of his personality someone might object to, would say ‘Oh dear,’ with the gravity of a tragedian, if anyone confessed to an interest that wasn’t cerebral art music. This was easy to play up to, or play along with at least, and Eustace seemed convinced by Sean’s performance. You could enter into an alliance with anyone as long as they didn’t want to probe your depths too far, and within weeks Eustace would greet Sean at social events thrown by Aleph-Null or Drexel or another tech firm by saying, ‘Thank god you’re here – I was about to impale my heart on a martini pick!’ or words to that effect. Sean would feel a warm glow in the pit of his stomach. This refined, handsome man had been at the point of total despair, but then Sean’s wife had taken a job in Vienna and Sean had swooped in to restore his, Eustace’s, faith in humanity, simply by playing the part of a willing protégé.
After some months it emerged that what Gary was into was the band Hüsker Dü.
Vesna worked long hours at Aleph-Null and came home late and exhausted. Sean usually prepared a big salad combined with poached salmon or pork chops and white cabbage. They drank celebrated local wines with firm bodies and generous acidities, which Eustace had recommended to him.
‘You’re so tired,’ he’d say to her, rubbing her shoulders before running her a bath. ‘You’re working so hard.’
‘Are you sure this is okay?’ she’d say. ‘Are you sure you’re not bored? Are you sure you’re not turning into a pot plant or a house cat?’
Sean would reassure her that if he started to put on a lot of weight or became listless or barely got out of bed in the morning… not that Vesna had any way of knowing, she’d soon be able to tell he was… wilting. Much like a pot plant.
‘In fact, when you leave for work I spend anything up to three hours in bed, either dozing or thinking about watching you get dressed and masturbating.’
‘Watching you pull your knickers on and then do your makeup in the mirror, topless.’
‘This is supposed to reassure me?’
‘Turns out that’s all the erotic fulfilment I’ve ever needed.’
‘But you’d tell me, if you were intolerably bored?’
‘If this was the other way round,’ said Sean, ‘would I ask you that?’
‘I hope so.’
‘But historically, maybe not,’ said Sean. ‘You’d just be expected to occupy yourself somehow. I’m thinking of registering with a gym. There’s one down the road.’
‘That would be amazing!’ said Vesna.
‘And, in any case, I’ve got Gary and Eustace.’
After luxuriant mornings of self-pleasure and coffee Sean found it easy to apply himself to his work. He situated his laptop on an ornate wooden bureau by a high window in the oversized living room and – between paragraphs – paced around the room, went back to the kitchen to brew another coffee, muttered to himself.
Soft locks. Hard locks. Is it all just a variation on a baby’s rattle and a shape-sorter hammer bench? Find the moon shape. The moon shape is missing. Go on an adventure to find the moon shape. And then, eventually, with optional layers of complication, you’ve bashed in all the pieces and completed the puzzle. Well done.
If he went out shopping it was to find a tie or neckerchief (he tried to base these on Eustace’s choices without making it too obvious) or a lovely new espresso cup.
Gary would message him, Pub? Bored off my arse.
Eustace would message him, Frischer Wind – ugh! – then the Basquiat retrospective Wednesday. You WILL be at the Lenzing Filtration reception, won’t you? If you’re not there I’ll choke on a canapé next to someone with weak arms.
One afternoon, 5,000 words in to an article about fictional cursed games which had then been developed into actual games, he pushed his espresso cup – a vintage, curved number with a matching saucer, black on the outside and dark brown on the inside – to the back of the desk. It clicked against a small wooden panel. Sean removed the cup and pushed the panel, which seesawed open to reveal a tiny compartment, smelling of raw sawdust and containing a miniature red book. Attached to the book by a ribbon was a slender, dull iron key.
He grabbed the key and saved his file. Then he proceeded around the flat to the three wall panels with keyholes at the top.
When he opened the tiny book, which was half the size of a pack of playing cards, he found that each page contained a single symbol from an alphabet he didn’t recognise. The script was not Cyrillic or Hebrew or Arabic or Georgian. The key didn’t turn in the lock in the living room or the panel in the kitchen. The third keyhole, in the right hand wall of the little study, was varnished over. No amount of scraping or jiggling would make so much as a scratch. He would have to find some tools.
People talked about the limitations of linear adventure games: that the setting could be an entire city, a country, an island, but that by necessity you’d only have access to a set, partial number of locations which moved the story forward, within which you’d pick up objects which moved the story forward.
But Sean’s argument had always been that this was much closer to real life than anyone cared to admit.
It doesn’t matter where we are. We go where we’re welcome, where we fit in, where we’re invited; we go only to places that move the story forward.
If we walked out one night at 2am and walked and walked until we got to, say, a patch of scrubland under a motorway flyover, or an airport when we weren’t going anywhere, and just stood there, cold and alone, as if we could evaporate into thin air and never have existed.
That’s what you get.
He decided to ask Eustace if he knew of any antiquarian book dealers with dark and dusty shops. Bearded men who spoke no English but might identify the symbols in the miniature book or put him in touch with a codebreaker. It could unlock a whole new part of the city for him!
When Sean showed Eustace the little book, quietly, at a table of eight (he had removed the key and kept it in his inside pocket), Eustace picked it up, opened it randomly and said, ‘Oh, what a curious little souvenir.’ Sean didn’t feel like pressing it; Annabelle was receiving an excellence award for her work with Edtmayer Systemtechnik and Eustace handed the little book back to him and continued to converse in German with the woman sitting on his other side. They laughed in unison and Sean felt himself blush, as if they were laughing about his curious little book.
Perhaps he was prone to feeling outshone, generally. Vesna was fluent in five languages. He wasn’t. Vesna would remind him that she knew plenty of stupid people who could speak a second language. ‘It just makes them stupid in two languages. Maybe we should get a pet, though. A cat. Would you like a black cat with white paws?’
There were kinds of Englishman he dreaded becoming, feared that he already was. Better to be a Eustace or a Gary, to the point of impersonating oneself, even, rather than a vague, children’s television presenter of a man; a man whose only qualities are bland enthusiasm, historical and geopolitical amnesia, and a clear speaking voice.
Coming up next!
By the time dessert was served Sean could feel his mood going into a tailspin – did he feel, on some level, jealous that Eustace seemed less focused on him tonight? How pathetic! – and he excused himself, phone to his ear, hand raised, and found a padded bench in the hallway.
He sat down and leaned his head against the wall. He had been drinking too fast – he always did when he felt out of place – and couldn’t count the number of times his red wine had been topped up, by Eustace or other grimly smiling older faces, and he felt stupid. He took the tiny red book out of his pocket and began to thumb through its hundred or so pages. Maybe there would be some extra text on one. But it was just symbol after symbol, in black ink on unruled paper, seemingly drawn free-hand rather than printed. He stared at each in turn, flipped it upside down, tried to cross his eyes to combine the recto and verso. The world around the book blurred at the edges and he lost track of time.
‘Darling, has it all got a bit much?’ Eustace put a hand on his shoulder. He could hear the sound of plates, the double doors softly opening and closing, cars idling outside.
‘A shame Vesna couldn’t be here. What’s that you’ve got? Are you praying?’
Sean held up the book.
‘Oh,’ said Eustace, ‘what a curious little souvenir.’
Sean’s articles had been popular since the move, which drove ad revenue and demand from his editors for more content. He seemed to have found the perfect formula of mystery, circumspection and suggestion to keep idle readers coming back. He knew when to close the door on an enigma and when to time the reinvestigation. Was there something we missed? Was the writer trying to throw us off the scent when they said they came up with the solution in a swimming pool with their kids and there wasn’t really anything deeper to it?
Is someone listening to this call?
He was surprised, the next day, to receive an email from his editor regarding a long read about a notorious Japanese role-playing game called Anata Ni Taishite (about which players had often reported that it was somehow reading their thoughts). The article had taken him most of the previous week and was 10,000 words long. He’d tracked down a lot of people involved in product testing, even one of the English voice-over actors. He’d been quite proud of it.
Not sure what happened with this one, Sean, the email read. Doesn’t seem to make much sense. Could you have another run at it? Seb x
Sean felt a combination of panic and an underlying certainty that he must have sent the wrong version of the file or it had been corrupted in transit somehow. He opened the attached document; there was a single comment, on page eight, which read:
Stopped reading at this point, mate. Make it a bit more focused and cut to the chase? Or maybe just have a break. You can afford to. S.
Sean scrolled back to the beginning of his article.
‘Last night,’ it started, ‘I finally got into the panel in the study. The one with the varnished-over keyhole. I used the white spirit from under the sink, a handkerchief and a pointy metal stick I found with the kitchen knives. Like a fondue spike or something. Took ages. First, I just rubbed it with spirit and went at it with the spike, then I soaked the handkerchief and sort of prodded it in and left it and then filed away some more of the varnish. I don’t know – maybe three hours total?’
Sean did not remember writing this at all. He looked up from the screen. His legs felt weak with pins and needles as he walked down the hall to the study. He opened the door and found the panel just as it always had been, its lock, on closer inspection, solid with a thick layer of varnish.
He ran back to his laptop. It was dark, and a fine rain was falling. He drew the curtains. Vesna would probably return within the hour and he ought to start dinner.
‘I almost gave up a couple of times. It felt like the varnish must have penetrated the mechanism and set, ruined it forever. I persevered. Would have been a bit disappointing if the key hadn’t fitted after all that, wouldn’t it? But it slipped in, click. And the moment I’d turned it the panel fell forwards. I shone my phone torch into it. A tunnel? No. It was only about a foot deep. There was an oil painting, like it had been painted right onto the wall behind the panel. Portrait of a man in profile, dressed in black with a white collar – hard to say whether it was three hundred years ago or present day. His face was all blurry, like it’d been painted properly and then swirled around when the paint was still wet. Here’s a photo. […] It’s a bit dark. Anyway, there was also another key. Lol. So I took it and tried it in the living room – the panel just behind the armchair. Nothing. I tried the one in the kitchen. Had to move the toaster. Click. This time, same depth back, painting of a woman. Black dress. Sitting in profile. Face all swooshed up. Here’s a photo. And another key. So, back to the living room. Opened the panel.’
Here, whatever state he was in when he’d written the article he couldn’t remember writing, Sean appeared to get distracted.
‘Is it a kind of grief, is that what we feel with endings, even with the most predictable potboiler ending, that whatever else gets revealed, the ultimate message is that the relief from disappointment is over – the distraction which promised that this time at last and once and for all it would prove to be more than a distraction? And is that why we keep going? Like addicts? Is story itself a kind of sickness?’
Sean instinctively highlighted the paragraph and hit delete. Then he undid the deletion.
‘Something the old man said when I went to the shop last night: “So that hearing, they will not hear, and seeing they will not see.” He said the translation should be ready by next week. I’ve been doing some research into the history of the building. It’s had twenty-eight former tenants. It’s going to be a lot of work making a file on all of them, but I might as well start here.
‘Vesna is pretending not to be worried about me. I can’t stand it. She thinks I can’t tell but it’s like a trowel scraping a slate. She asks how my day was. Thinks that by not rolling her eyes…’
He heard Vesna’s keys in the front door, heard her unzipping her boots.
‘Hey,’ she called. ‘I’m sorry I’m late.’ She entered the living room and undid her hair. ‘If it’s not an insult to your intelligence to say that, by this point. I’m famished.’
When Gary returned from the bar with two bottles of white beer and asked him if he was okay, Sean ventured to say, ‘I don’t know.’
Gary raised his eyebrows.
‘I don’t know,’ Sean said again.
‘Ah,’ said Gary. ‘This is normal.’
‘You’ve been here, what, five months?’
‘Yeah. Totally normal.’
‘I haven’t even told you what’s wrong!’
‘You’re not okay,’ said Gary, ‘is what’s wrong. But you’ll be fine.’
He poured Sean’s beer for him.
‘It’s not…’ Sean looked at his glass and took a sip. It tasted like bubblegum. ‘Look, I’m not going through some kind of existential crisis because my wife’s the main breadwinner, okay?’
‘No,’ said Gary.
‘This isn’t some kind of… I’ve got my work. I’m fine. I live a life of comfort and privilege and purpose.’
‘Sure,’ said Gary.
‘And I’m proud of her.’
‘Why wouldn’t you be?’
‘I’m not jealous of her success.’
‘So it’s not that.’
‘You worried she’s going to leave you?’
‘What is there to leave?’ said Sean, a little surprised by his own words as he said them. ‘It would be like leaving a bus stop.’
‘Okay,’ said Gary.
‘Do you ever feel,’ said Sean, ‘like it’s not that something’s wrong right now, it’s that you can feel what’s coming?’
Gary held up his glass and made a kind of what do you think? face.
‘And it’s not good.’
‘Sarah’s been working on AI for driverless vehicles,’ said Gary. ‘You know, they have to plan and program for every eventuality, so sometimes an AI has to make a snap decision in an accident – so it’s like: either a police officer dies or a civilian dies; either a bus full of schoolkids dies or a man on a motorbike dies; either a highly skilled engineer dies…’
‘That’s really funny,’ said Sean. ‘Do they just tell it what to do? They select the outcome?’
‘My understanding,’ said Gary, ‘is that they program the AI with the totality of human history and then ask it to make the call.’
The next morning Sean had an email from another client for whom he’d completed a retrospective overview of an independent adventure game company ahead of a new release. The email simply said:
Sean, I’m not sure what this is. Are you okay?
He held his breath and opened the file.
‘Little locked fingers. Little licked fingers. Nothing in-between. It’s been a very easy three years, all told. As soon as I got over my predicament… I learned to play my part very well: drinks with Gary, operettas with Eustace, just like the old days. I filed my copy. Vesna looks at me like I’m a wound that is finally starting to heal. The medication makes me feel like I’m standing next to myself, but I still know where he is, and what he has to do. Nobody, for the time being, suspects a thing and I need only maintain this for another year or so.’
Sean closed his laptop and went to find his shoes.
Aleph-Null’s central office was some way out of the city. A double-decker train for forty-five minutes and then half an hour on a sleek white bullet. It slowed next to a series of black glass towers of irregular heights. It could have been anywhere, in any country that had chosen it.
He hadn’t slept very well and his eyes were itchy, but that hardly mattered when he didn’t have anything to do anyway, when he needn’t work another day in his life and his career might accurately be classed as a hobby. A rich idiot and his pastimes. Whatever his insights or subversive impulses, such as they were, they had been bought out by Vesna’s paycheck, neutralised like a piece of code, a momentary irregularity, debugged. And who was he kidding using that as a metaphor? He knew no more about coding than he could speak a second language. Engineering, artificial intelligence, women in STEM; all of it was so alien to him that he didn’t know whether to clap like a seal or make a placard and start a protest in the streets. The future Sean who had infiltrated his copy would have done that, with gusto, much as he sounded like a lunatic.
‘We’ll turn the whole world into a festering sore for these people. We’ll work for them, enslave others for them, we won’t stop until there’s nothing left.’
Sean looked at Aleph-Null’s business park. It didn’t look like a ‘festering sore’ at all – it looked extraordinarily neat and sanitary; microchips and diodes on a circuit board. A life through which everyone could flow like a signal, like a current, like data. It’s possible all of this was nothing; a little bout of mental hiccups.
He disembarked and was about to follow the trail of employees to the tree-lined thoroughfare when he noticed Eustace, striding purposefully towards the platform. He was carrying a large, cube-shaped box wrapped in packing paper.
‘What brings you here?’ he said, beaming.
‘Vesna,’ said Sean. ‘Vesna’s office.’
‘Oh, of course,’ said Eustace. ‘Strauss on Friday, yes? About time, too.’
‘Well, do say hello to Vesna for me,’ he said, making as if to leave. ‘We need to keep on the right side of our benefactors, no?’
Sean took the tiny red book out of his pocket and held it out to Eustace.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘What a curious little souvenir.’
As Sean climbed the stairs of Area 3 his surroundings seemed to get blanker and blanker, a little detail removed on each landing; first there was no dust, then no scuff marks or imperfections in the steps, then the walls became brighter and the occasional cracks or paintbrush marks faded until the walls were pure, uninterrupted white.