Julian savored each step of the journey as he hiked along the seemingly endless pathway that led away from the highway, a positive action toward a destination that wasn’t home. Life was going to change. From within an arch covered in vegetation, a mansion owned by Mr. Victor Renault—an authority within the community—slowly presented itself, a relic to industrial memory, its appearance teased through the surrounding oaks. The centuries-old pathway weaved its way through tufting shrubs—dry after the long summer—that caught and tore at Julian’s cheap clothes as he meandered over the uneven slate.
Autumn was approaching; a chill tickled his chest as the sun descended behind the city, and he raised his collar to the first of the cold winds of the season. From within the oasis of trees he picked up the smell and noise of heavy industrial manufacturing and refining; the city dominated the skyline, casting a glow on the pollution clouding the sky.
Arriving on the bus from his remote truck stop of a town, Julian had endured the walk through the heart of a city reveling in resuscitation from the brink of demolition or abandonment. The residents were carousing with engorged pay packets from a resurgent blue-collar economy, flashing their earnings in the shape of cars, drugs, and drink.
One strip joint boasted a midday queue, with the inebriated clientele jeering and exposing themselves to the passing pedestrians, including Julian. Putting the shouted queries regarding his masculinity out of his mind, he had lowered his head and hurried through the Valley, succeeding in stripping away his pretense of scholarly authority. The patrons returned their attention to the oversized screens on the outside of the club, showing the outline of dancers recorded by infrared cameras.
The driverless cabs crawled past him, tracking his progress along the sidewalk, calling for his attention with offers of drive-and-eat deals, or drive and drink, drive in private with no questions asked.
Towering billboards cladding the sides of buildings cycled through adverts that pressed at the borders of taste and legality. The bright images cut through the layers of smog, casting neon demons into the air. The city felt like an alien planet.
Requesting a stay on his PhD submission in mathematics—after a confrontation with the rest of his family, which involved direct language stating that a man in his late twenties should not still be at school unless there was something wrong with him—a job had been found for Julian through a friend of the local priest.
Approaching the mansion, he knocked on a door that was laden with weighty dominion. Silence lay steady against the exterior. The dwelling presented a grim facade to the world, a combination of authoritative defiance, fear, and grandeur. Thin windows crossed by heavy steel bars infrequently punctuated the gray masonry. Charred gargoyles sat atop a white trim running around the roof.
Even the door loomed over him, a black monolith of ornate carvings that threatened rather than invited. The estate lay desolate, old, and dead. The lock rattled, returning Julian’s attention to his future employer. The door seemed to pause hesitantly as he stood waiting. Then it creaked open as the sun dipped below the horizon. The entrance lay in shade and he was unable to pick out detail. Then a slender and pale woman stepped out, dressed in a tight black gown.
The glow of the setting sun caught the side of her face, outlining a melancholy that echoed a faded beauty. Her black hair, parted at the center, floated down in gentle waves around her face. A plunging neckline hugged the curves of her bust, drawing his eyes. She’d painted her nails black.
“Are you the math tutor?” she asked. Her soft Southern drawl and dark piercing eyes intoxicated him.
“Um, yes,” Julian replied. “Is this when I was expected?”
The woman shrugged. “My husband retained you. He said you’d be turning up some time today.”
The ground shook as the sulfur-processing plant discharged.
They both turned to watch the fire in the sky. Julian adjusted his glasses to cut down the glare.
“Meet me under a red sky,” the woman whispered. “Must be six. Come in. You must be hungry after the long trip.”
“No, I’m fine. Just a bit tired from the uncomfortable seats.”
She retreated into the house and beckoned for Julian to follow. Stepping over the threshold diminished him. In the awe-inspiring entrance, he felt humbled; a skinny man, barely more than a boy, carrying a small case that carried everything important in his life. The foyer created a rough circle, with exits on either side and a grand circular staircase at the rear.
“Welcome to the Pond,” the woman said.
“It’s the name of the estate. You don’t need to know the boring backstory.” She raised her arm and cupped an invisible ball, indicating the entrance to the left. The door was closed. “The dining room.” She repeated the movement to the right. “The library, where you shall instruct the children.”
Julian peered through the opening into the library. Two desks were placed together with their backs to the windows. Children’s laughter drifted on the air.
“And proud we are of them,” she continued. “Somewhere there is a kitchen, but I am neither inclined nor expected to know where, nor am I permitted access. I believe there is a chef in the shape of an automaton, but you can help yourself to whatever food you find.” Her thin frame backed up her disinterest in appetite.
“You have a bot in the house?”
“Doesn’t everyone these days? They dwell wherever there is a requirement to administer the base necessities of the flesh. And it doesn’t get any more necessary, or base, than around here.”
At the foot of the stairs, she turned to face him. “And I am Esis.”
“Esis.” She sighed. Even her feigned disinterest taunted at the edges of seduction. “It’s Greek. My parents dreamed of distant exotic lands.”
“Have you been?” Julian asked.
“I have neither received the permission, nor had the expectation or opportunity. But I’m told it’s the opposite of here.” Esis paused as a forlorn expression skipped across her face. Slowly she raised her eyes and stared into his face. “You can start tomorrow.”
“The children don’t go to school?”
She turned and started up the stairs, pausing to glance back over her shoulder. “Trust me, it’s easier this way. Your room—follow.”
Esis ascended the stairs, sashaying from step to step as she caressed the banister. Her perfume drifted behind, leaving a scent of infatuation. “Where do we live, the fearful, the soft-hearted, the lonely?”
On the landing, she paused and rested her hand against the first door on the left and eased it open. “Welcome to Limbo.”
She leaned against the doorjamb and watched Julian enter the room. Once inside, he turned to ask her the whereabouts of the bathroom, but she’d gone. The room was voluminous and empty. It was probably bigger than his entire family home. In the center sat a four-poster bed large enough for a small family. Although the furnishings were old, nothing was dusty or fragile.
Now alone, he placed the suitcase on the bed. It made no impact, and presented a ridiculously small footprint.
He sat on the edge of the bed and folded his hands into his lap. It had been a difficult week. The recommendation from his family to take this job had felt more like an expulsion than an earnest opportunity. Make something of your life. As if any one of them had. Out-of-work miners with no future. And no interest in it.
The walls of the room were painted a deep green, and a thick brown carpet stretched from wall to wall. A huge chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling. Deep-red velvet curtains hung on one wall, covering a window. Everything was mismatched, as though out of place, dumped here for convenience. Muted colors. Muted sounds of children playing. Outside, the dead or dying vegetation bleached to near white. A house devoid of life.
People lived here, but they didn’t live. And either by embarrassment or convenience, it was where Julian had been dumped, too.
His emotions twisted on themselves, and he quietly spluttered as a tear rolled down his face.
The first morning passed without crisis. The children tolerated Julian’s nervous stumbling as he lurched through the lessons, then evacuated at lunchtime to burn off their energy unseen in the gardens. He’d been disappointed at their lack of interest in the wonderful library filled with exotic and ancient books that engulfed one wall.
The heavy mathematics bias in the tomes provided an emotional counterbalance for Julian. But he felt emotionally adrift, washed out to sea in a current he couldn’t survive. Isolation weighed down his every breath. An unworthy man in a foreign world.
As he packed away his books from the morning lessons, music drifted into the library from the foyer. He followed the melody and found it emanating from behind the dining-room door. With some trepidation, he eased it open and peered in, a hesitant eye creeping past the threshold.
Esis sat slumped over the dining table, resting on one elbow, staring blankly at the far wall. The curtains were drawn, leaving the room in a dusty gloom. An ancient record player hummed in the corner, playing a scratched disk of an incoherent, warbling singer of undetermined sex. A sideboard was placed against one wall, but nothing else appeared to be in the room except for the paneling running down one side.
Without turning toward him, Esis sighed. “Tell me something about yourself, Mr. Julian.”
The only other available seat was at the opposite end of the table. He pulled out the chair and lowered himself into it.
“You don’t need to sit there,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, I can barely see you.”
He dragged the chair next to hers. The room held an ageless aura, with no hint of the modern age. No electronic devices. No phones. She was the first person he’d seen in months who wasn’t tethered to a screen.
A loose white lace dress hung away from her body, a stark contrast to the previous day’s outfit. It made his own battered clothes—which could be best described as clean, woefully dated, and tasteless—not even at the standard of the local factory workers’. She’d painted her nails a soft pink.
He tried not to look down her top as she shifted on the tabletop. “There’s not much to say.”
“Can you make me laugh? I’d settle for humor.”
“I could sing. Most people laugh when I do.”
She smiled. “Can you sing me a lullaby?”
“It’s the middle of the day.”
“Don’t rest on circumstance.”
“Is that the name of the chair?”
She gave him another smile. “You’ll need to do better. I was told, when younger, to laugh at boys’ jokes, even if they weren’t funny. I never saw the point.”
“Where is your husband?”
“Where he pleases. Business demands more than blood.”
“What does he do?”
“He addresses situations. Helps make things happen.”
“Is he in IT?”
Esis reclined in her chair and gave him a flat stare. “I don’t think so. The best description fails to match his business card, which says politician.”
She leaned forward on her elbows, exposing a large amount of skin. He caught the smooth curve of her bust flashing past as the material adjusted. Julian gulped as his loins spiked.
“Hey, you want to get drunk?” she asked.
“Uh, no. I should stay focused. The children. Lessons.”
“Fine. I’m going to indulge in a drink.” Esis moved to the sideboard and pulled open a lower cupboard door to reveal a bar fridge. Inside was a row of champagne bottles. She removed one, ripped away the foil with practiced ease, and pulled out the cork. The pop reverberated. A row of whiskey glasses sat behind one of the myriad identical paneled doors.
“I’m not an expert, but I thought they poured champagne into small glasses,” Julian said.
Esis looked at the tumbler in her hand and filled it near to the top. “Fuck it. Have you ever faced a day where the fear of uncertainty finally eclipses the dread of the known?”
“I guess you have, Mr. Julian.” She shrugged. “Otherwise why would you be here in this godforsaken place? I will take great pleasure in making your acquaintance.” She took a large sip from her glass as she returned to her seat, letting the bottle thud on the ancient oak table. “Here’s to the man of the house. Long may he rot—wrong word … provide.”
“How did you meet him?”
“He was handing out funding at the university. He’d written something nice in my graduation book. And his phone number.”
“And you called him?”
“Sometimes we need to jump without knowing if where we land will be any better than where we are.”
“What do you mean?”
“I believe you understand.” She cast an eye over his battered jeans and worn T-shirt. “The continuation of your employment could be assisted if you were to address your appearance.”
“I’m sorry, but this is my first serious job, so I’ve never earned any money that didn’t have to go on basic amenities. Once I receive my first pay, I’ll buy some better stuff. I guess I should get some kind of phone, in case I need to contact you.”
“You don’t have a cell?”
“After my father and brothers took their beer money, there wasn’t a whole lot left.”
“Ah, the dissipation of the desperate. The fever of the connected can be a little overplayed. It could be something we have in common, just you and me.”
“You don’t have a phone either?”
“Why would I need one? Who has the inclination to talk to me? And let’s face facts. No one who comes here has much to contribute to the great debate, with most struggling to even lift their knuckles off the ground. Ultimately, I’m not enthralled by the distraction of gadgets.”
“I wish I was the same. Every time I pass a shop, the latest device claws at me. I guess I’ll have to get used to it. The years at college allowed me to master the technology but I could never have any of it.”
“The penniless artisan, a tragedy if not so clichéd. I cannot bear it. Wait here.” Esis stood and left the room.
Julian examined his surroundings uncertainly. His thumb found a blemish on the heavily varnished table, and he picked at it with his nail.
The door hushed over the carpet as Esis returned and placed a roll of bills on the desk. “Pay day.”
“Whoa, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much money. Cash is so unusual these days.”
“Yeah, we get a fair bit through here, for some reason. You’d better knock the dirt off. Anyway, go out and spend. Enjoy yourself. But don’t let the Valley change you.”
Bus. City. Store. His first major purchase.
The build-your-own-PC sales station quickly broke down as he submitted his technical wish list and summoned an overweight teenager who rattled out the specifications of the laptop as though it were a confession. The cash caused minor turbulence with their system. The manager offered him a complementary drink while he waited for a security guard from the bank to turn up and confirm the currency’s legitimacy.
Julian hesitated, but the manager had grown suspicious. He downed the drink to defuse the situation and immediately succumbed to its infection. He smiled, feeling easy about buying a few extra pieces of equipment before making his way out the door.
On the red-light strip, a few jeered as he passed through clutching the laptop box to his chest.
Several people with glowing faces waited at the bus stop, lost in their devices. He sat staring across the road at a derelict building with the sign Adults Club. Multiple copies of a poster had been repeatedly plastered over the door.
Missing something in your life? Lady Lovelace. Life is short. Have an affair.
Have an affair? Just having sex would be something. It would take an act of moral distraction for him to fold at the first sign of temptation. But spurred on by the dancing image of Esis’s breast, he was filled with an urgent, vivid feeling; he was waiting, but impatient.
The bus came, blocking his view of the poster. Feet clattered on the steps. The door hissed open and closed.
And as it pulled away, Julian remained behind, still sitting and staring at the sign, locked in a fantasy.