I am in the Durhams’ house now – it wasn’t hard to find the place, even without my phone. It is a fashionable terraced house, not unlike the one I live in. Bigger, obviously. Much bigger, and in a grander architectural tradition. It has a front door the width of two front doors. Durham is older than me, he bought his house years before I bought mine, so he got a bigger one in a better area. I’m jealous of Durham’s house. His walls have so much more surface than the walls in my house, there is more wall everywhere you look, and more floor. The furniture is enormous.
There are pictures around the place; family photographs blown up and mounted in specialist frames. Durham himself is in most of them, glaring out from under his grizzly brown fringe. His family gathered around. I examine each picture in turn, wondering about this man and his family. What were they like, the people who brought him into this world and share it with him? I have never heard Durham’s mother’s voice, for example. I will never hear it – she is dead. I look at her and try to imagine how she talked. Did she have an accent? What did Durham hear when she praised him, or chastised and mocked him, or consoled him when he was a boy? I cannot know.
I look at the pictures of his wife and son and try to imagine how they feel about being so closely associated with Durham. Do they like him? They seem very happy. They must love him. I am glad. I am pleased to see Durham hasn’t passed his ill-tempered face down to his kid. The boy seems unburdened in this picture here, even by the light of my torch, which tends to flash off the glass in the frame. I didn’t want to come here at night. I actually had no intention of coming here at all. I have been resisting the urge for weeks. But then, in the middle of the night, I decided I had to.
I’m pleased to report that it doesn’t stink here or anything. The Durhams took the bins out before they went away, they cleared most of the surfaces, but they left the fridge full of stuff. I’m looking in there now. Nothing unusual going on. Everything looks well preserved. I am actually impressed by the situation in the Durham fridge. Who keeps their fridge in such perfect order? I wonder. Is this a sign of their collective malfunctioning? Is this what called you here, if you have come here?
Running my torch over the kitchen peninsula, I see envelopes with names on. I see clean, dry piles of plates. A chopping board coloured pleasantly with years’ worth of beetroot and mushroom dirt. It is wholesome rather than dirty. There are fruit flies on an orange half, the only thing out of place. They shift in the torchlight like iron filings taunted by a magnet.
Looking closer at the family pictures, Durham’s son, who is older than my son, looks sweet, if somewhat obedient. He’s smiling in a school uniform here. In this one; the uniform of the Cub Scouts. I feel bad about the boy. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I hate to think he might actually be scarred by all this. I don’t want anything to happen to any of them, not really, the Durhams. I’m climbing their stairs. The light from my torch shrinks as I climb into the darkness. The light becomes thin. I shine it around but instead of showing me bannisters and the expensive runner, there’s just light coming back, like sunlight on a river. I keep walking up the stairs. Details clatter away. I can hear the sound of myself breathing. I can hear my voice, this voice, this voice if that’s what it is. Doing this. These words and nothing else. As I reach the landing I catch my foot. I’m falling in darkness. My spine shivers, bracing for impact. I try to detect a row of tents, or a flash of grass, something that will hold me still.
I am on the floor, but still falling. I feel my fingers touching surfaces I know to be furniture, but they slip away. Why have you come here, Benjamin? This question is on the air, cold as the leg of the occasional chair that the Durhams keep next to their massive bespoke bookshelf. I feel like screaming. I feel convinced that I am no longer alone. I continue to fall, and yet I remain on the landing of this tasteful, well-proportioned house. I am in the Durhams’ house and I cannot leave.
Durham used to eat lunch with people, that was his thing. Anytime I was in the kitchen area, there would be Durham entertaining like we were not in a professional communal space, but a venue he had hired. Kebabs with the sales team. Health bowls with the developers. He was into the street food market near Old Street, and he would go with his chosen group every day. I never ate lunch with Durham. I could have done if I wanted, he was not exclusionary, but I liked sandwich and crisps. One time he was eating a soup and making everyone smell it. He beckoned to me, ‘Come and smell this soup!’
I smiled, kind of thrilled by the prospect of how disgusting the soup was bound to smell. Then I realised he had not been beckoning me, but someone behind me – a woman I didn’t know at all. I was forced to swerve away, down the staircase to the tenth floor where I remained hungry and unsatisfied for the rest of the day. Durham didn’t notice, of course. He probably never meant to insult me.
Durham was his last name, but he never used anything else. Even his email signature, which I felt sure was autogenerated, just said Durham.
‘People call me Durham,’ I heard him say once to a swoggle of interns at a Thursday mixer. He said it like the severance of his first name (Dean) had been out of his hands. This bothered me. What was behind this need to be associated with the word Durham, and which Durham did he mean? The city? The county? The university maybe. I didn’t know which. All of them I suppose.
I left that company months ago, and I forgot about Durham and his lunches and his last name. But then I saw him one bright morning in the lobby at my current place. Here (though not here-here, because now, as these words come to me, I am in Durham’s house).
‘Wow, Dean!’ I said. He was standing by the lifts with a dumb smile on his face.
‘It’s still just Durham.’
I nodded at this, apologised with a laugh. We stood in quiet for a moment, neither of us with anything worth saying. I couldn’t even raise the energy to ask about his family. I felt more and more relaxed as I realised he was nervous about working here, in a place this enormous. His age seemed to rest heavier on him in this vast building. I was glad. I was glad too that in a place like this nobody could ever smell anyone else’s soup. There are too many other soups that would get in the way. A society exists here that he could never hope to dominate.
I was thinking about his lunch obsession, and of all the many hundreds of chairs and tables there are in this office’s canteen, and how I would basically never have to see him eating ever again if I didn’t want to, when I said, ‘We should catch up soon.’
He agreed, but we never set a date. I didn’t think of Durham very much. I saw him from time to time. He gave muted waves. Nods of the head. We kept a respectful distance from each other; we had come to an understanding.
I say all this (Am I saying it? What is this that I am doing?) to demonstrate how little Durham meant to me. Nothing at all. Less, certainly, than the city or the county or the university – none of which I have ever visited.
He vanished from my life until one Thursday, when I saw him among a posse of lunch-people heading out through the lobby into the plaza. There he goes, I thought. He was near the back of the crowd, trying to keep up. He didn’t even notice I was there as he passed by. I was thin air to him all over again. I felt a sense of relief wash through me and went back to my lush, pressure-free sandwiches and my unimportant, boring work.
About a month after this sighting, I got the first email.
I need to talk to you urgently about a personal matter. It’s about your sister. My wife and I want to meet with you outside work. Soonish if poss.
I didn’t bother replying. I actually had a deadline for once, and I assumed Durham was trying to be funny. Or that possibly he was feeling lonely and was scrabbling for friendship – possibly after embarrassing himself at some post-work event. It felt like a stretch, but then the people here would not appreciate his smelly soup antics, I was sure. It felt like a vapid overfamiliarity that had no real weight. Maybe there was someone else the email was meant for. Ben Peston. Len Rester. Could’ve been either of those people, they both existed on the internal directory.
But a small part of me wondered. What if it was meant for me? What then? What did he want? The man knew I had a sister. It was one of the only things he knew about me – that my sister was an academic. He knew this because she had come to the old office once, having just returned from a conference in Durham. We were going to see our brother, Tom, and take him out on the town.
‘This is my sister,’ I’d told Durham. ‘She’s been in Durham.’
‘I’m sure I would have noticed!’ he’d said.
Even though we ignored this terrible joke, Durham insisted on leaving the office with us, walking us to the station. All the way he asked imbecilic questions about what the point of academia was, to the extent I had to apologise for his behaviour. We had to explain it all to Tom, who, of course, found it hilarious.
Maybe Durham’s been drinking at lunchtime, I thought. Though it was still odd that he’d mention his wife.
I continued not to reply. I continued to be distracted.
Maybe my sister’s said something controversial about wives, I thought. Maybe it triggered him. This was very possible – in the Guardian maybe. Or maybe she visited the University of Durham again and he was reprising his old joke. Or she’d ridiculed the city/university/county of Durham in some way, and he expected me to grasp the connection.
In any case, I put his email in the low-priority folder and pressed on with my work. Durham followed up a day later. This time by direct message.
Hey mate! Really need to grab you for a sec, but can’t get into the office atm. I’m remote working. Can you meet me?
Sorry Durham. I am super busy at the moment. TBH I never really speak to my sister. Not sure how I can help.
Eh? Listen, I am really busy atm. Please just email me or whatever, but if it’s anything about my family, I would prefer you to leave it alone.This is really not cool actually. I’d like it to end.
Was I shaken? Yes. But I remained outwardly calm. I put do not disturb on the chat and took screenshots. I created a folder called ‘Durham HR’.
I went back to my feebly progressing work. I thought about sending a text to Mum or Tom to see if they knew anything about the Durhams, but I didn’t want to have to explain the whole thing so I left it.
Then another email came.
Subject: Invitation / check on your family
Hi there, this is Samantha, Durham’s wife. He is typing this as I speak to him. I want you to know this because I want you to picture me standing here talking to you. Asking you as directly as I can to take this seriously.
I am urging you to please come and see us. Normally I would invite you to our home, but I can’t. We are staying in a hotel outside of the city. We can’t enter our house.
Your sister is there. She won’t leave. I’m at my wits’ end. She appears on the stairs. She howls and she makes noises like a crow and other beasts. I need you to help us. I think your sister has died and that she is haunting us.
The message went on to imply that the Durhams had not budgeted for any hotel stays. It was something they were unable to afford to continue doing, nights on end, at over £70 per room.
We’re having to go down the corridor to see our boy. He’s all alone at night. God knows what he can hear through the walls in this place.
I replied immediately, regretting being sucked into this nonsense even as I typed.
Maybe this is a joke. Maybe you’ve been hacked. Either way, since you have brought money into it, and children, I’ll answer frankly. It’s obviously impossible what you’re saying. As far as I’m aware you’ve never met my sister. I’m not even prepared to concede to you that I have a sister. Durham (your husband) and I used to work at the same company and that’s about the only contact you have ever had with my family, or I with yours.
I’m clearly not going to agree to pay for your hotel bill. I have no suggestions for the collective psychosis you appear to be experiencing. You have my sympathy. I can recommend family counselling – this is not intended as an insult, I myself have been through family counselling, and couples therapy, and hypnosis. All of these things have beneficial qualities for social groups experiencing unusually high levels of stress. Or maybe you should take the money you’re wasting on a hotel in the suburbs and go on an actual holiday.
If this was indeed a joke and I’ve somehow missed the point, I apologise. Work has been manic recently, and I’m not on my best form.
Either way, my best wishes to you all.
I was annoyed that I had replied, especially in a way that went along with the stupid things Durham was saying. It seemed clear to me that he had written that message, and his wife had no idea that he was using her name. He was having a breakdown. I wondered if I should talk to one of the mental health first-aiders about it, but I thought that my reply might implicate me, that I might have made things worse. I felt sure there was some training I’d taken, a quiz that had asked what I should do when faced with a crisis of this kind. I probably knew at the time of the training that the correct answer was not to berate the colleague in distress. I definitely would not have said that the best course of action was to play along with the delusion. As the afternoon wore on, and nothing came into my inbox – from the Durhams or from HR – I let the issue go and switched my attention back to the deadlines.
Only my denial at having seen my sister nagged at me. I had seen her (I had seen you). Only a couple of weeks ago you were in town for an hour, and we ate breakfast at a cafe near the station. We gave your dog a bowl of water.
‘It’s all she wants these days,’ you told me.
‘I feel the same way,’ I said.
Your dog and I drank a lot of water that day, and I kept texting you later to say that I was in various different places asking to use the bathroom. I’m in the Guildhall School of Drama and I am asking to use the bathroom. I am in the London Transport Museum and I am asking directions to the facilities. I am in the Royal Academy with a high-end cake, hoping to go to the toilet soon.
I laughed quietly each time, as though you were there with me. Which of course you were, really. You were in the space we make for each other. I am aware that you are summoned by these messages I send you. It has been the same since we were children. We have this space and we have permission to summon each other into it. Sibspace. Though I’ve only started to call it Sibspace now, in later life. And only in my mind – I would hesitate to use that word out loud. It ruins it a bit. But that’s what it is. I can send a message or phone you up and your voice, you, enters Sibspace and we give each other our time. Sibspace is so embarrassing. I can sense you wincing at it. What does it mean, Benjamin? It doesn’t matter. We are close.
I felt ashamed for telling Durham we don’t see one another any more. Alone in my kitchen in the dark I imagined you coming to the Durhams instead of to me. I wondered if you had tried to visit me in Sibspace and somehow ended up at the Durhams’ house instead.
I tapped a message to you on my phone: Are you haunting the Durhams? Are you alive? I deleted it. I was too afraid of what the answer might be to send.
I tried calling your number but my phone made a strange robotic noise, which I remembered it making on past occasions when I had tried to call you and it turned out your phone was in a canal, or you had smashed it by accidentally dropping it down some stairs.
Alone in the kitchen, alone in my house, I wrote and deleted messages. Would you even receive them? I could not send them anyway. I was afraid of you not replying, or of someone else replying and telling me they were standing next to you, by the side of the road. ‘She’s not breathing,’ they might reply. ‘She’s not moving at all.’
I watched a video instead, a recent talk you had given.
I watched you there, my sister, moving your arms behind the lectern. After about five minutes – only the introduction – I was completely lost. Your voice was a reassuring burr and crackle, giving knowledge to an unseen audience. Not entirely unseen, there were some heads. Hair and baldness. (All that scalp and hair covering those minds, and all of them listening to you. My God, I still reel from it.) I imagined my own head, seen from behind, a sort of hesitant tonsure. I nodded along to what you were saying. I felt an urgent need to stand up in the audience and say something absurd, or knock someone’s hat off. I felt myself reaching out for a man in a hat. But the only hat would have been in a corridor somewhere, I guessed. Or in an office on a hook. I could feel a hook with a hat on it. A very precise form of communication: a hook with a hat on it. I watched you until the end of the video.
Then I called all the hospitals in London, one after another, asking if you or someone fitting your description had been brought in unconscious or comatose. I listened to the space while they went to check, while they looked at records and asked about bodies that had been rushed in through the emergency doors. Are any of these women comatose? Are any of them haunting a finance guy and his family? I had to wish then that they were all someone else’s sisters. I had to wish someone else was in there and they were not you. I told the people who answered the phone that I prayed there was nobody else there at all. Empty hospitals, I said. I hope for row after row of unoccupied beds. They could hear that I was emotional, but they were busy, so the conversations were rarely satisfactory. Yes, lots of people hurt, and no, none of them are your sister. I called back each of them – can you go and check again – I sat in silence.
I crept towards the space I found in front of me, there in the silence. I pressed ahead while I waited for the hospital to check for your body. To see if it was there. I pressed towards a beige area, and there was a sound like the tearing open of a cracker box.
The fragrance also was of crackers – soft dust, grain, pressure, air. When we did not like the school dinners, these were the crackers they gave us, caked in white spread and liquid jam.
After some sensory adjustment, it felt natural to arrive at the reception area for a medium-sized campsite. It was a lodge, in fact. A reception lodge for a campsite. There was a desk with blocks of paper for guests to make notes. I touched some of the notes and the voice of the woman on the phone, the woman at the hospital, told me there was nothing and nobody matching the description I had given. I turned over the pages and the voice was gone. Had I said goodbye?
Durham started coming back to the office after a few days’ absence. He would make excuses to come to my floor and hang around near the artworks. He’d not been looking after himself properly. He stank of mildew – of clothes taking too long to dry. His trousers were ruckled with creases. He clearly still considered me responsible for the situation he was in. I avoided his eye in every circumstance, even in the meetings he now seemed to attend, even though we worked on different projects. Nobody challenged his presence in these meetings. He just turned up. I couldn’t stop him. It would’ve looked worse for me than him if I demanded he leave a meeting on a project, and it turned out he had a key role I didn’t know about. I had to put up with him, and his stench.
I left the meetings before they were over, to keep away from him, but then Durham managed to corner me in the bathroom.
‘Look what she’s done now,’ he said, and he demonstrated that his jaw had become massively elasticated. His lower jaw hung open like the cargo bay of a jumbo jet. Inside there his wet tongue dangled about, rubbery.
‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘That’s disgusting. See a doctor.’
‘It’s the ghost of your sister! She’s cursed me!’
‘This is absurd,’ I told him. ‘This isn’t my sister’s doing. Go see a doctor.’
I thought he was going to punch me. He was definitely thinking about it. I informed him that I was keeping a file about him and that I would be showing it to HR.
‘How do you know it wasn’t your sister?’ he asked. ‘Have you seen her recently?’
He lifted his jaw back into place before he spoke. It seemed stable but loosely articulated, like a child’s swing. The effect was worsened by Durham’s tendency to thrust his chin forward each time he challenged me with a question.
‘No – my God I told you, I haven’t been in touch with her for years. We keep our lives separate. I think we Zoomed at Christmas. But that was months ago, obviously. This has nothing to do with me. Leave her out of this,’ I said.
‘She might have died,’ he said. ‘And you wouldn’t know.’
‘She hasn’t died,’ I said, but my voice wavered. ‘If she had died I would have been informed.’
‘She might have been in an accident.’
‘But you haven’t seen her.’
‘I would have been told!’ It annoyed me that I was raising my voice. What if someone heard us? I took a deep breath. Before Durham could start up again, we were interrupted by Simon, one of the developers I work with. He looked at us awkwardly as he went for a cubicle. I took the chance to leave the bathroom and escape to my desk.
I wrote and deleted several more texts to you. I wrote and deleted several more texts to Mum, and to Tom, our brother. What would he do in this situation? Something good and honest, and let’s face it, with Tom this just wouldn’t be happening. Durham would’ve just taken him for burgers and been happy. Everyone would have been happy.
I looked up your name on the internet to see if you had died. I tried to talk to you in my mind.
I saw Durham again later, at another meeting, his sad jaw swinging. Also, the skin under his eyes was drooping away from his eyeballs like warm putty. Was this supposed to be my fault too? My family’s? He kept smoothing the skin back into place and blinking rapidly. His ears were showing signs of running, an odd liquid like syrup trickling down his neck.
He left the meeting early, no longer interested, giving one word answers to complex technical product questions. He was broken. I stayed at the office as late as I could to avoid thinking of him in that state.
On my way home, I passed a hotel. I did not recognise it, but I felt certain it was the hotel that the Durhams were staying in. I looked at the square lights of the windows for a long time. I listened as the reception doors opened and closed, like the building was breathing.
I called you, but a boy answered.
‘Who is this?’
‘George Durham,’ said the boy. He sounded morose.
I looked at my phone. I was sure I had tapped your name to make the call, but it just said Durham. I had called Durham’s phone.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. Then I hung up.
I tried calling you again, but this time I was connected to a hospital. I tried again and this time it was my work answering machine. I stayed on the line and listened to the sound of my office, empty and whirring.
In the dark, in the kitchen, it grew late.
The hospitals told me to stop calling. The police told me to stop wasting their time. I wrote and deleted more text messages.
I called what I thought was your number again, and this time I got through to an answering service.
I left a message. I explained that I was worried, and that we hadn’t been in touch in a while, and that I had lost my way of contacting you. Something was wrong with my phone, I explained.
I said I wanted to go back to when we were kids, and Sibspace was just your bedroom door. I would knock on the bedroom door, and you’d have to turn off the music, and I would say something to try and make you laugh. And then I’d come in and try to make you laugh. And then I’d go, because inevitably I would just be taking up space, stopping you from doing what you wanted to do.
In the dark, in the kitchen, the beige area presented itself to me.
I moved towards the beige area. I progressed through the sensory alterations of the sweet reception lodge light. On the desk, a cork-ball key ring with a fluorescent ribbon rested near the desktop computer monitor. The key ring had a label that said Shed 1–5. I wondered if you were now represented here by the cork-ball key ring. It wouldn’t surprise me. We have been in places like this, hungry for the campsite shop, wondering if we can play table tennis, trying to get things and to possess things.
I moved through Sibspace. There were empty chairs for waiting. The wood-framed glass door was set into a long window that overlooked the campsite.
I took this to mean you were not outside.
Through the window it was possible to see tents and cars, the white bellies of caravan roofs arched in the sun, swingball spikes with fresh tennis balls hanging slack, awaiting the bat.
I took this to mean you were not in the toilets or a cupboard.
I could hear the sound of tent-awning wind chimes ringing softly somewhere. I could hear a portable heater blowing dry heat at ankle height. This was the language of Sibspace, a burr in the throat.
I knew without having to travel anywhere that the reception lodge had toilets and to get to the toilets it would be necessary to pass the games room. In the Sibspace games room, of course, the games were not true games, but representational areas where amusing concepts we consider related to one another can gather and spend time. I became two unmoving table tennis bats and sought your attention.
Nothing changed. Not even the cloud in the sky which I could see through the games room skylight.
I moved through the air. I heard a voice but it was only our mother, who was a telephone table and chairs. She could not respond to anything I was saying, and I could not respond to anything she was saying. She was agreeing with the radio. She was agreeing that it is really jam-making that completes the scene of a contented allotment life. The dog concurred, I understood. You were not in the games room.
I felt our mother say, Of course she’s not in the games room, but that sentence could have been related to anything. The Archers. Anything.
I visited the shop and I lay in wait as a multipack of small cereal boxes. I cried a great deal. I cried because you did not respond and I was worried then, as worried as a small box of Rice Krispies could be.
A horrible thought occurred to me. I wondered if Durham had been here. That lunch-boggling man in my reception lodge!
So I went outside of the lodge into the grassed camping areas. I moved slowly, and everything was slow. The air had caught in it the smell of warm car interiors. Where are you? I called, and my voice now took the form of barbecue smoke and confident familial discipline. A telling-off out of sight, an argument about boundaries in the surrounding fields. This was me begging for a sign that you had not died or been harmed or slipped in the bath.
Our brother Tom found me like this. He put his warm hands on my shoulders. He had been in a tent, he told me. An amazing tent with six individual rooms inside it.
‘Holly is haunting the Durhams,’ I said, and he laughed sweetly at the idea, and said how wonderful this was to be talking again after what had felt like a long time, and that I should try to be happier and feel lucky, because I was lucky.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,’ I said, or tried to say out loud. ‘I didn’t want to make you worried or upset.’
I smiled somehow (I don’t know how, some dust may have risen, not all of the required actions made sense beyond a physical sensation). I smiled at all of the things our brother was saying, and Tom sent the wind through the wild grasses in the casually swollen fields in order to reassure me, yet again, that my years of arrogance and bullying when we were children had been forgiven, he felt sure. Probably forgiven.
Night fell and I became cold on the lawn. Shapes that had once been bright motorhome windows became liquid, tents pooled and dissolved into darkness, the hills and grass failed, familiarity eked away and the reception lodge dwindled into nothing.
I am in Durham’s house, falling into darkness, and I cannot hear you. I can hear only this voice (what even is this, this what I’m doing now?). I’m falling still, continuing to fall, and to speak to you here, in the dark. I remember almost nothing. I can hear only this voice, and I think that somewhere you may be dancing, and having a good time.
Artwork by Mark Dorf, untitled9