I make myself sick three times today before running into her this evening.
The first is in the morning. Standing in front of my mirror, paralysed with indecision over what to wear. I feel this cloying need for comfort, I want to bury my body under thick layers of fabric but my jumpers are worn and old, everything tired and used up and repeated and stale. I stick three fingers down my throat and heave my morning coffee into the toilet. My day begins badly. I brush my teeth again.
The second is at work. Preparing the gallery for a show with a prick of sculptor, he has me up a ladder hanging a bronze chandelier from the ceiling, only to decide once I get down that he wants it to stand. My arms still shaking on my lunch break, can barely raise my cigarette to my mouth. Don’t even mean to make myself sick but the sandwich goes down my throat like a ball of metal spikes, and I barely make it to the toilet in time. Julie hears me and is waiting when I come out, hits me in the arm and tells me she’s going to punch me every time she knows I do it. I ask her how much she charges for that calibre of therapy and she punches me again. At the end of the shift, she gives me a lift home, the only person I know in London under thirty with a car. She makes me listen to her true crime podcast (literally, the one she hosts), and though she asks for honest feedback I know she just wants me to say her co-host isn’t funny.
The third is back home again. Preparing to go out. Dark outside even though the sun won’t actually set for hours. I’ve been in my flat for four months now and it still feels unlived in – there’s no boxes left but I haven’t managed to imbue it with any character, everything’s cheap and practical and the walls need paint that I don’t have the money to buy nor the time to apply. I make myself sick for my own safety because I get the urge to cut while chopping garlic for dinner, and that’s a line I haven’t crossed for nearly six months now and a promise to myself I’m determined to keep. It’s mostly pale liquid at this point, watery and insubstantial, but my throat feels like cracked glass and I tell myself that will be the last time today.
Luckily, I get a rush of Friday evening energy once I’ve eaten and had a drink, and cleaning the kitchen makes me feel productive and slightly closer to the real adult person I so often feel I’m masquerading as. Mason is someone whose name always cuts through the noise when it appears on my phone, and when they tell me there’s a motive for drinks tonight, I tell them I’m there. I pick out a new jacket I bought that week and, despite the pathetic consumer guilt I feel at failing to stick to my pledge to only buy second-hand outerwear this year, I’m suddenly feeling myself quite a bit once I’ve shaved and stuck some Erika de Casier on my headphones as I leave the flat.
I get to the pub and the music’s cheesy and loud, so of course we find a table as close to the speakers as possible. Mason’s all buzzy over someone at work getting caught watching porn in the office, says it was the resident workplace Tory who deleted his pronouns from the template email signature and couldn’t understand why Mason of all people would refuse to be the company’s Pride mascot, why that would be anything less than the honour of a lifetime.
Sonam arrives late, as always, doesn’t apologise, as always, but does dive straight into what held her up (as always) – first, she thought her cat had got out the window she’d left open, couldn’t find it anywhere in her flat and went running outside yelling its name, only to find when she came back inside that it had crawled into her laundry pile and she’d thrown an empty pillowcase over it that it had been too lazy to emerge from. Then, she’d been told her rent was going up, so she’d had a total breakdown, phoned her mum, wrote, deleted, rewrote, deleted, wrote again (and this time got her sister to proofread) an email to her landlord, then, when she was finally ready to go, it turned out her cat had actually got out the window this time and she had to crawl onto the terrace with the loose tiles to rescue it, where she saw her neighbour having sex with someone through their window that wasn’t their boyfriend, although she’s pretty sure they’re poly so it probably isn’t a big deal.
I have much less patience than Mason for Sonam’s recurring late stories; they seem to never find them anything less than whimsical and endearing whereas to me their increasing elaborateness is just getting tiresome, so they’re busy nodding along and snorting and gasping in all the right places while I’ve started to phase out a little, and it’s at this point I look up and see her staring at me from across the room.
She’s just walked in, standing between the doorway and the bar, her coat dripping with fresh rainwater and her sleek hair slightly frazzled by the wind. She smiles knowingly, waiting for me to approach, which I do as if summoned, on my feet before I’ve even said anything to the others. Mason follows my eyeline, sees her, questions me. I mumble her name, ‘Della’, they never met but Mason knows who I mean while Sonam needs her memory jogged and immediately starts hissing for more information.
I reach her and when we hug, I’m aware of how light and insubstantial I feel in her arms, I know she can tell I’ve lost weight but thankfully she doesn’t say anything. For her part she looks full of life, her hair longer than when I last saw her (mine shorter), her lips redder than I’ve seen before, a new rotation of rings cluttering her fingers, but the same old boots with the sole coming apart underneath the left toe. She asks me first how I’ve been, I dodge the question, turn it back on her. She nods, things have been good, she smiles a really genuine smile, they clearly have been. I ask who she’s here with, she points to a group heading straight to the garden even though it sounds like it’s pouring outside. Birthday of a friend whose name I know but never met in person. She gestures to the bar. I follow.
We never even saw each other for that long, just a few sporadic meets over a couple of months but the connection had been strong, I always felt this weird combination of totally at ease with her but also desperate to impress her, and it was definitely me chasing her more than it being a mutual thing. I was always pushing for the next meet; she was aloof and veered between intense bursts of late-night messaging and ignoring me for twenty-four hours the following day. Nothing serious, I can’t even call us exes, but the sex had been hungry and imaginative and I’d always wanted it to turn into something more. It fell apart pretty undramatically, I got tired of the mixed messages and she clearly wasn’t invested enough to keep it going as we fizzled out, but I’d spent the eight months or so since strangely mourning something that never materialised, yet I felt I’d lost all the same. Probably because she was the first person since my last real ex that I’d felt properly into, so the lack of reciprocated passion on her end hit me way harder than it should have, but she’d made me realise how much I’d missed coming so alive for someone, feeling them pervade every aspect of my day, get excited to feel their name in my mouth, a name I’d wanted to share with everyone I spoke to.
At the bar now she orders gin which throws me because I didn’t know she drank it. I suddenly realise I’m more drunk than I thought I was and definitely more than I’d want to be for this conversation so I don’t get anything, but then she asks me what I want and when I refuse, she orders me a beer anyway. I accept it rather warily, not liking feeling indebted to her in any way, and ask about her work (usually a boring question but she actually does what she loves). Her energy’s infectious as she starts to talk, says it’s been going well, she’s doing way more interviews and getting to finally explore the topics she’s interested in, write the articles she’s pitching. I tell her I read the last one she shared, a series of interviews with different landlords exploring their attitudes to rent increases (headline is: they don’t care). She’s appreciative, if a little surprised. I feel like I should ease off, and I’m considering excusing myself when she nods to the pool table in the next room and asks if I want a game. The previous people seem to be finishing up, someone’s trying to pot the black as we speak, and, unusually, there’s no one else waiting. I shrug and say sure, throwing a quick glance back at Mason and Sonam, don’t manage to make eye contact with either of them, and follow her towards the table.
We’d played pool together once before, on our second date. It had been drunken, sexually charged fun. We hadn’t slept together on our first, and we’d both come into the next one with a lot of heat. Pool was silly, competitive foreplay, and we played two games that she both won. I don’t know where people pick up these billiards skills when it’s only something they play sporadically after a few drinks, but she had a knack for it. We also played a doubles game with another pair, and luckily there I managed to rise to the occasion and save some dignity when she lost her touch, pocketing five to her one before our opponents beat us. She’d liked that. I’d liked that. it was a good night.
Now, she breaks (which I’m glad about), and a stripe throws itself into the bottom right pocket. She’s away. Another shot, another pocket. The next one gets her nowhere, but she blocks me pretty well. I get out of it but don’t land anything. We play differently – she’s thinking everything through, I can see her brain working when she bends over the table, planning where to go and how to get there. I just push balls around the surface, hope some of them will end up in the right place. She’d told me several times it’s just maths, but my brain’s never worked like that. She fluffs a sitter and suddenly I feel like I might be able to catch up. One in the pocket, another hovering in a good position. I realise we’re not talking, and I pick up the conversation where we left off, ask her what she’s writing now.
She doesn’t respond for a moment while she takes her shot (bang, straight in the pocket), and then tells me it’s something big. Different. An actual challenge. She’s interrupted by one of her friends coming in and asking if she’s okay, gives me a look that makes me feel like some kind of creep. Della waves her away, says she’ll be out in a minute. The friend leaves – not without another consternating glance in my direction.
I ask Della what she means, and she offers me up an easy opportunity with her next shot which I thankfully put away. She looks at me as she answers, and for a moment we leave the table behind and are just talking, our eyes locked.
She says she went to speak to The Alter.
I stall, my response catching in my mouth. I feel the word hang in the air between us – Alter. In my periphery, I can see that a couple heard the name too and one of them takes the other by the shoulder and guides them purposefully from the room.
Wow, I say. Not what I was expecting.
She nods. She’s used to this. Had this conversation before. Already faced the stunned reactions, and has most likely had to to handle substantially worse than mine.
The thing is, she explains, anyone can go to speak with it. That’s what it wants – it wants people to come, in the hope that they’ll stay. It doesn’t care about press, there’s no official channels for interview, there’s just the queue to speak, alone, in a room with it. Once you’re there, you can ask it anything you want. You could be writing a personal WordPress blog or be the Editor of The Guardian, it doesn’t matter – everyone’s treated equally, because they’re all equally insubstantial to it.
Equally desirable too, I counter, then ask her if it’s real. A dumb question. She looks at me witheringly, clearly disappointed I have to take the conversation there. Alter scepticism is a pretty weak take at this point. I move on quickly – ask her if she felt threatened. If it tried to – what’s the word? – absorb her.
Assimilate. That’s the word she retorts with. And, no. There was no menace, apparently. No sense of force. She looks away for a moment, her eyes narrowed and intense, passing her cue slowly between her fingers, like she’s conjuring the image for me to see between us. She felt a calmness there, she says. A quiet, in her head. She’d been intending to record, but forgot to actually press anything when she arrived. Apparently, that happens to everyone. Once you’re in, you forget why you came. End up just listening to what it has to say.
What does it have to say?
She goes quiet. Takes a moment.
It knew about my mum, she says.
Our eyes meet. I squeeze her arm instinctively, and she doesn’t seem to mind the contact. She says it understood her. Said things she’s spent hundreds of pounds chasing in therapy. Said there was a place for her there, where she didn’t have to fight anymore. She had a panic attack at the gates as she left, and didn’t sleep properly for a week after. It stays with her still, even now. That warmth. That calm. Planted in her head. Like part of it left with her, and won’t let her forget.
The person she spoke to, I ask. The actual – body. Whoever they used to be. Could she tell they were still in there?
She nods. Says it’s like speaking to someone reciting lines of dialogue. They’re in there, but they’re compliant. No, compliant feels too simple – more like trusting. You’ve passed on the pressure of choice. The pain of agency. She imagines it’s like watching a film of your life, all the events taking place through a screen. You can’t affect it, but you don’t mind. A blunt, soft world that can’t pierce, harm, or bruise you. I tell her it kind of sounds like it convinced her. She says that honestly – it almost did.
We realise we’d paused playing for some time when a bald man with a thick neck tells us to get a move on. I hastily return to the table, rush my shot and set her up for an easy one, but she misses it too. We’re distracted, neither of us really paying attention to the game anymore. Then, as I bend low to take my next turn, I suddenly feel my body fill with a familiar wave of cold, grey weight, my fingers going numb and my surroundings retreating like I couldn’t physically touch them if I wanted to, like I’m transient, non-physical. My mouth tastes bitter, metallic with an intense pang of self-loathing, I feel disgusting and ugly and foolish and embarrassed. I can’t focus on the ball in front of me, can’t even decide where to hit it, there’s no outcome where I succeed here or anything goes right or I ever overcome myself and I strike my shot haphazardly, the ball glances around the edges of the pocket, and I stand up and don’t want to look her in the eye, keep my gaze on the table, pretend I’m considering tactics. I try to force myself back into the moment, can’t think of the right words to say, go to ask her about work but then realise that’s of course what we’ve just been talking about this whole time. I ask about her flat (she’d just moved when we started seeing each other), she says she’s finally got a bed frame, set it up herself and everything. She pockets her next shot.
It doesn’t take long for her to finish up with me. I have three balls left on the table at the game’s end, which to be honest I feel pretty chuffed with, and we hand the cues over to the thick-necked guy that’s appeared directly behind us, breathing hard through his mouth.
We turn to each other. I want her to stay. I ask when the article comes out. She says she doesn’t know, but she’ll obviously post about it. I tell her I’ll keep an eye out for it. She says it was good to see me. I ask if there’s any point in me messaging her after this. Tell her I’d really enjoy seeing her again. She says better not. Same place. All that. We hug, and I feel like I’ll probably never see her again, which sends me straight to the bar for another drink after I’ve watched her walk away.
Mason’s a little indignant at having been abandoned for so long, Sonam less so, she just wants the gossip. I fill them in, linger a bit too long on how attracted I am to her, tell them she spanked me at pool, invite a number of obvious spanking jokes. I don’t mention The Alter.
When I get home, I don’t let myself throw up. And it’s Della’s face I see when I close my eyes.
The next day I can’t get out of bed. Wracked with anxiety about how I behaved with Della, furious with myself for being too drunk, for failing to see her again before we left the pub. I sleep, not because I’m tired, but because I don’t want to be awake.
My decision to seek out The Alter feels like one that was made for me after last night. I don’t go with any particular intention, it’s more that I have the sudden compulsion to at least see it for myself. Della made it sound simple enough – like she said, anyone can go, and anyone can speak with it. I’d always mistrusted the idea, and felt like it would surely try to mentally coerce me into staying, but Della came and went as she intended, it didn’t trap her, didn’t invade her mind and delete her memories. I get a coffee en route and catch the train out of London. It’s a bright day, I keep my sunglasses on the whole journey, my hidden eyes roaming face to face and wondering who else here shares my purpose. A middle-aged man hunched over a table quietly weeping into his palm is a pretty safe bet.
Sure enough, when we pull into the station he gets up, shaking his face slightly, adjusting his jacket. I hang back a moment and decide he can be my guide, and I let him take the lead off the train. Turns out I needn’t have worried – the tiny country station is rammed as most of the train disembarks with us, funnelling into a neat little stream that winds its way out of the station and through the neighbouring village, up a footpath towards the surrounding hills. It’s a route I probably could have taken from memory at this point anyway – I’ve seen enough coverage of it, enough people documenting their journeys there. The village itself has become bordered and shuttered, any businesses folding or relocating, residents locking themselves away or moving on, the constant waves of people coming through destroying any prior tranquillity, moral panic erupting amongst the locals and clashing with the passers-through in the streets as the unknowable existential threat of The Alter cast a deadly shadow over their deliberately small, isolated world.
Climbing the hill, puffing, realising just how much I’ve been smoking lately, I fall into step beside a woman a little older than me, maybe mid-thirties, dyed, tangly black hair, lots of nose piercings. Also on her own. Empty-handed, same as everyone. I ask her what her plan is. Seeing or staying. Realise it’s a bad idea as soon as I’ve said it, she’s way too tense to even speak, she starts shaking instead and after I’ve checked she’s okay I increase my pace and walk on ahead to give her space.
At the summit of the hill, I stop and take stock of where we’re going. The slope leads down to a treeline, where a thick woodland that almost seems to have sprung up from nowhere swallows the scattered train of people shuttling willingly into its dark, jagged gape. On my way down I get chatting to a sci-fi filmmaker who says he’s a Cronenberg obsessive and has travelled all the way from Argentina for the chance to commune with something supernatural. He’s so overexcited though that by the time we reach the bottom of the hill I’m starting to feel the clash of our different energies, but passing through the first line of trees seems to have a cleansing, sobering effect, and silence slowly ripples its way through both him and the rest of the crowd as we reach the final leg of our journey.
We walk for a good fifteen minutes or so before The Keep starts to materialise through the branches ahead of us. From here it’s just a line of steep wooden walls, intermittently lined with little rickety watchtowers. There’s a set of tall, heavy looking gates in the centre, but they’re sealed shut. Instead, a series of doorways run their way along the front of the walls, and the crowd starts to naturally split into separate compliant paths. Around me, everyone seems remarkably meek and well settled, quiet and submissive like reared cattle. I can’t say that I feel any different necessarily, but I certainly don’t feel like talking. It’s not that I couldn’t if I wanted to, more like I don’t see the need. This suddenly terrifies me, and I have to start whispering to myself just to make sure I can still form words, earning a wary backwards glance from the person ahead of me.
We’re in single file – when did we get in single file? There’s no one out here to instruct us, no wardens or ushers or anyone to maintain order. The creature must be in our heads – gentle suggestions we aren’t aware of, guiding fingers taking root in our brains. I have the urge to panic, suddenly fearful of The Alter’s influence, but I lack the capacity, there’s no adrenaline in my body, I can logically consider the possibility of fear but I can’t actually engage with it, can’t feel or act on it.
As I near the front of my queue, I realise the watchtowers are unmanned. Still not a single part of The Alter’s living body in sight. When I reach the door, there’s no one to greet us, no directions given, no welcome. Instead, I stoop through a slightly low threshold, and find myself at the start of a narrow corridor. I’d been expecting to emerge into some bustling, thriving commune, but instead there’s just a straight, thin hallway.
I realise people are waiting behind me, so I somewhat hesitantly press on, following the others ahead of me venturing further into the compound. The corridor continues for some time and I already feel lost, buried deep in the fortified hull of a deep-sea ship or the belly of an inanimate titan, no sense of The Keep’s scale, how big I should expect this site to be. Eventually, the corridor splinters – three more paths. For some reason, I don’t stop to think. I continue straight, despite the fact that all the people I can see ahead of me went left.
I walk. No one ahead now. I turn to look behind me, and see a single figure way back at the start of the corridor split. Can’t even make out their face.
I start to pass doors. On either side of the corridor, suddenly, they’ve appeared. Spaced out, perfectly even. I look back, and realise they’ve been around me for some time. I hadn’t noticed. The person behind me has gone.
I know when I’ve reached the door for me. Again, it’s not something that I have to choose – I come to a stop because it feels right, because it’s obvious, because it’s self-evident that I have to. Have I done this before? Could I be retracing steps I’ve already taken, is that why this all feels so rehearsed? The door does not have a handle. I push it open.
Inside, a square room. Plain. A single chair in the middle. I accept the invitation. Sit down.
As soon as I’m seated, a door that blends invisibly into the far wall opens and a man walks into the room. He takes four full strides towards me and stops, his hands folded in front of him. He’s wearing simple, visibly hand-woven clothes. A brown knitted vest. Pale canvas trousers. Well-worn, simple sandals. He looks kind of like me.
I can tell he’s waiting for me to speak. His expression is warm. Patient. Eyebrows slightly raised. Expectant.
I say I want to speak to The Alter. He tells me I am. His voice – it doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of his mouth. Like someone else is speaking out of sight, with him mouthing along. He asks what I want to speak to The Alter about. I’m caught off guard. He’d make me think I’d be leading the conversation.
I ask how many people there are now. The man replies that The Alter now comprises four thousand, five hundred and seventy-eight minds. He says minds. It. It says minds. Not bodies. That sticks out to me.
I ask The Alter if it will ever stop growing. It tells me it will grow like any living thing. I ask where it came from. It says it came from our minds. I say I don’t understand. It says it doesn’t either.
I say I can feel its presence here. That it’s been in my mind ever since I stepped foot in the woodland. The Alter nods and says it makes sure things stay peaceful. That everyone is seen, as they desire. I ask if it could take my mind by force. It says it could. But to do so would destroy me. And then I would be no good to either of us.
It asks me if I know anyone that is part of The Alter. I say not personally. But it met a friend of mine. The Alter asks me who. I say it couldn’t possibly remember. The Alter says it remembers every face it’s ever encountered.
I say I want to speak to the person I’m looking at. The real person. This man that The Alter has taken. The Alter says not taken – given. I ask if he’s still in there. The Alter says of course he is. It lifts the man’s hand to his chest. Says this is the same heartbeat this man was born with. Now it’s just part of a network. Now it beats in unison.
I can’t think why I came here. I can barely remember where I was this morning. I take a moment, a deep breath. It’s had to think in its presence – forming coherent thoughts feels like wading through a swamp; thick, knee-deep sludge.
The Alter tells me it’s glad I haven’t made myself sick today.
I stare at it. The Alter blinks. Doesn’t change its expression.
That’s none of its business, I say. It tells me it is when I think it so loudly. It asks me why I came here. I say to speak to it. It asks me why I’m in pain.
My forehead’s hot. My knuckles tense. I say there’s no reason. The Alter tells me it knows I’ve been in pain for quite a long time. I say it’s not my fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault.
The Alter says that living is the avoidance of pain. Suffering, the great aberration. The preventor of bliss.
I remember Della. I remember how she came here, and came back. That she walked away.
The door opens opposite me, and people start to walk in. One by one, a continuous flow, they don’t stop. All of them dressed in similar handmade clothes, all ages, heights, bodies, faces. The room fills. They stand around me. When The Alter speaks again, they speak as one.
You are suffering, so you are not living. This is called death. It is a lonely place to be.
The man I was alone with mere moments ago raises his hand, gestures to the door behind me. The Alter speaks with just his voice now. Tells me I may return when I’m ready.
I’m still sitting down. I’m still sitting down.
The back of my throat – coarse and sore. Still tinged with the sting of past bile. Bruised with abuse.
I’ve never felt ready.
I’m still sitting down.
Will Pinhey is a multi-disciplinary writer across theatre, film, and prose fiction, based in London. He is the co-founder of independent theatre and film company Mannequin Mouth, and filmed versions of his two plays with the company to date can be watched now at mannequinmouth.com. His debut feature film Mother Maker Lover Taker is currently in post-production with Mannequin Mouth, and he is in the process of editing a completed novel of speculative fiction.