Liam Hogan is a London-based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars’ League. Winner of Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2016 and Quantum Shorts 2015, he’s had work published in DailyScienceFiction, Sci-Phi Journal, and over a dozen anthologies.
Find out more at: http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/.
by Liam Hogan
> bring rope
I texted back a single question mark, but there was no reply.
Julia lived in a converted warehouse out Docklands way. The artists weren’t supposed to live in their studios, but, London rents being London rents and artists being artists, most of them had a chaise longue, a pull-out sofa, or some other suitably bohemian arrangement. Julia and I, we had an on-off thing, so much so that I wondered if I should have put a winky grin after the question mark, but most likely one of her fellow artists needed some chunky piece of salvage lifted, or a completed “artwork” lowered.
Chances were I’d not see the rope again and I weighed this against any possible return of favor from Julia. Then I remembered I had a climbing rope I didn’t exactly trust anymore, so I chucked that one in my rucksack.
I was expecting Julia to buzz me in at the gate, but instead the crackly intercom voice told me: “I’ll come down.”
I twiddled my thumbs for a couple of long minutes, listening to the distorted sound of someone’s radio cranked up to maximum volume, before she appeared and let me through. “Jeez Jules!” I said, “You been working lates?”
She looked haggard, her hair a mess and her face thinner than I remembered, eyes darker. She took one step forward and buried herself in my hug before breaking off and pointing at my bag.
“Got the rope?” she asked. I nodded and she chewed her lip. “Come up,” she said, “Got something to show you.”
All of which under other circumstances might have been highly promising, but we turned off before we reached her floor and entered darkened corridors I’d not been down before. The old tobacco warehouse had been carved up into odd shaped rooms, plywood passageways hacked between them any which way. But these corridors were more permanent and less lived in: no artwork adorned the walls, no lights shone behind the scant few doors, old newspapers and last autumn’s leaves disintegrated quietly in the corners.
Julia yanked on a metal door, the hinges screamed in protest, and everything I’d imagined I might be about to see, disappeared.
The words dried up and I just stood and stared.
We were in an unconverted part of the warehouse. Wide and tall, it went all the way to the corrugated roof, three floors up. In the middle of this vast open space hung a cloud: a black, featureless, utterly impossible, cloud. Beneath it a gabble of the community’s artist-types hung wearily onto ropes that arced upwards and vanished into the inky nothingness.
Julia threaded her way between them to where a length of coarse rope lay untidily on the concrete floor. She picked up one end and threw it towards the cloud. At first I thought she’d missed—it was a clumsy, lazy throw—but the cloud snapped up the offering and pulled the rope taut with Julia gripping the other end.
“Now you,” she said.
I stared at her. Stared at the mind-warping cloud, at the other artists. Stared and slowly shook my head.
“Thomas!” she called out, breaking the spell. I dropped my bag and hauled out the climbing rope, untying the simple knot at its heart and pulling a section free. Holding on to it with my left hand I threw the coiled loops as hard as I could with my right and watched as it was taken up just as eagerly as Julia’s was. I tested the rope—the pull wasn’t a strong one, enough to lift my arm if I let it, but not enough to make me strain.
I looked around once again at the others and then at Julia, whose eyes were now half closed. There were a dozen people in the room, artists who could and would chew the fat about anything, any time of the day, and who were only normally this silent and still when they were stoned out of their artsy little minds.
“Julia!” I hissed. She turned slowly towards me. “What are we doing here?”
She blinked, looked up towards the hovering darkness, gestured with her chin. “Holding it down,” she said.
I thought about that for a while. I’m not sure how long. Time had a weird way of slipping by when you looked into the heart of that cloud.
“Why don’t we just tie off the ropes?” I suggested.
She gave me a small, wry grin. “Try it.”
I eased over to the wall where there was a metal loop embedded in the brickwork. A quick figure of eight later I turned back to the watching Julia, letting go of the rope. As I did so it slackened and the end suspended in the cloud dropped back to Earth, bouncing off the shoulder of one of the artists who shuffled sleepily away from it.
“You need to keep hold of it,” Julia said. “Skin on rope. Otherwise… it does that.”
I untied the knot and made ready to send the loose end back up into the cloud. “What if I don’t?” I said, “What if you all… let go?”
She shrugged. “Have you looked into it? Deep into it?”
“How does it make you feel?”
I looked again. Its center was a total absence of light or form, but the peripheries… the peripheries held swirling shapes that eluded description, tendrils of inky blackness that vanished as soon as I turned my attention on them, that gave rise to strange, dark, magical thoughts. I couldn’t tell you what these thoughts contained; they were as ethereal as the half-glimpsed forms. They held an odd attraction though, like the gentle pull on my arms, the pull that kept the rope tight, the rope I couldn’t even remember having thrown again.
I turned to try and explain these vague thoughts to Julia and was surprised to see more people had arrived; our numbers had doubled. Some were in painter’s smocks, others in dressing gowns, one in just his boxers, all linked to the cloud by whatever ropes they had managed to scrounge up.
“Julia,” I said, and her head reluctantly lifted once again from its slumped position. “Where did this… thing… come from?”
It must have been a full minute before she jerked her shoulders and broke her glazed eyes from mine. “I think Stefan made it.”
I looked to where she’d gestured. Most of the artists were in a rough circle fanning out around the fringes of the cloud, around the edges of the room, but Stefan stood alone directly beneath it. Though “stood” wasn’t quite right: the toes of his shoes dragged across the concrete, his arms spread wide as he hung from the pair of ropes clenched in his outstretched hands. I blinked. It looked like he was being crucified.
Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the unnatural stillness of all those people not talking, or eating, or drinking, or even smoking. Maybe it was because I didn’t see the same thing they did when I stared into the cloud, my eyes closed to the artistic inspiration it offered them.
Whatever it was, I wanted out: a sudden, desperate urge to be elsewhere.
I felt Julia’s eyes watching me and I looked back at her, feeling small, feeling guilty. “I’ll, um, call a friend to come help, shall I?”
She nodded, just once. Didn’t smile. Didn’t say anything. But she knew. I forced my hand to let go and watched the snake of the rope fall between the artists. No one stirred. I turned, leaving my bag, leaving the rope, aware of the dark void at my back. As I walked out I raised my mobile to my ear, though I hadn’t called anyone, though there wasn’t anyone I could possibly call.
Outside a surreal dawn was breaking, the clouds lit pink, the whirr of an electric milk van and a few forlorn birds the only signs of life. With a shaking hand I reached for a smoke, but my bag was upstairs, with Julia, with the blackness. I felt drained, exhausted. The pit of my stomach was a hollow I was too weary to think about filling, but I couldn’t ignore my thirst, nor the sudden urgent need for a toilet.
I thought of going back into the studios, up to Julia’s room—I knew where she kept the spare key. I thought of going back into that cavernous space with its empty black heart and dragging Julia out of there. Dragging everybody out of there.
But I did none of those things. I ducked behind a dumpster to relieve myself and then got the train to the heart of the city, mingling with the early-morning commuters, doing my best to blink away the darkness lingering behind my eyelids, the darkness I could see wherever I looked.
I left a few messages for Julia. Tried to call her once or twice, but got no reply. Didn’t try again. I guess I was wary of what she’d think of me for having bailed. It wasn’t my fault. She must have realized that I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body, must have known that I always listened carefully to what other people said before voicing any opinions on the splattered mess of their meaningless paintings, their tatty sculptures or, worst of all, the reclaimed junk that made up their “installations.” She must have known that even my interest in her own dismal daubs was entirely feigned, and why.
It was almost a week before I summoned up the nerve to reclaim my climbing bag. The rope I didn’t care about, but the rucksack was nearly new and it had a couple of carabiners and a belaying loop that I could ill afford to lose.
The courtyard was quiet, nobody around. Nobody around at all. I pressed the buzzer but there was no buzz, no answer, and when I pushed the gate it opened freely, the magnetic lock inactive, the power out. The stairwell was dark, the timer switch for the lights did nothing but slowly, mechanically, wind down. Which was kind of creepy though it wasn’t so dark you couldn’t see. Wasn’t as dark as that cloud. Nothing was.
It took me a while to find my way back to that gaping space. I pushed the protesting door half open, my heart pounding, and squeezed through, dreading what I was about to see.
There was nothing. No cloud, no people, no climbing bag, and no ropes. No dust or cobwebs or leaves either. It looked like the place had been swept spotlessly clean. I crossed to the center of the room, staring up to the skylit roof, peering at the walls, looking for any sign of anything at all.
Two floors up I let myself into Julia’s workshop. It was cold and lifeless somehow, even though it was still full of her artwork, her clothes, her empty bottles of wine. I ran a finger over the hardened acrylic on a paintbrush, glanced into a coffee cup whose dregs had long since dried and cracked. Up the ladder in the attic space where she had her mattress I picked up a T-shirt of mine, left behind on a previous visit, or maybe she’d borrowed it after an impromptu stopover at my place. It felt damp and musty and I let it drop where I’d found it.
The story broke the day after: “Mysterious Disappearances at Artist Studios, 12 missing.” Twelve pictures on the double page spread, none of whom were Julia.
I kept quiet. A few of the missing turned up in the weeks afterwards, none of them had been at the studios for a while. And a lot more names were added, Julia’s included, but who knows what the real tally is?
As far as I know, I’m the only person who saw the cloud and hasn’t vanished off to whatever hell they all went to. There’s no one to talk to about it, no one to ask if they see the same black abyss when they close their eyes at night, if they feel their soul slipping into its gaping maw as they try desperately to sleep, if they wake with the same numbing sense of loss, the same emptiness reflected back in the bathroom mirror.
Except for Stefan, perhaps.
I saw his photo in someone else’s Evening Standard, assumed he was a latecomer to the roll call of the missing. But it wasn’t his disappearance that got him into the papers, it was his triumphant emergence on the premier stage of art. Stefan has been commissioned to fill the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.
The art world is in shock: the biggest, most exclusive space in London, given to a nobody. No track record, no Turner prize, no previous exhibitions of any note.
A fraud or a PR stunt is suspected, rumour rife that “Stefan Wilkowitz” is Banksy’s real name, or perhaps a pseudonym adopted for this singular work.
People gather to see the huge screens behind which he labors, even though the piece isn’t due to open for another week. The dearth of information just adds to the hype, just adds to the building excitement.
Really, there’s only one thing anyone knows about him, or his art. It’s the name of his installation and his instruction to all who eagerly await its opening. It’s on the personalized invitation to the exclusive preview that dropped, unexpectedly, through my letter box this morning. And it’s emblazoned across the glass-top of the Tate Modern for all to see, in 14 foot high, dark-as-the-night letters.
“Bring Rope,” it says.
Copyright 2016 by Liam Hogan