In a Britain akin to this one, Vincent Rice falls off a ladder, literally at Petra Orff’s feet. They introduce themselves, and immigrant Petra senses a kindred spirit in Vincent’s complex sense of home. He offers to take her to Metamuse, an alternative theatre experience like no other that he won tickets to in a competition he doesn’t remember entering.
The first show leaves them besotted with each other; the second is far more disturbing. Inexplicable occurrences pile on top of one another, all connected to the mysterious Metamuse. Only Petra can see the web of sinister coincidences surrounding them both and, with injustices both past and present weighing on her mind, she begins to wonder if Metamuse is more than just a show…
Release date: November 23, 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 320
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1 The falling man appeared out of nowhere, in the middle of the air, right before Petra’s eyes.
Not for long, because then he was at her feet, crumpled on hands and knees. Time slowed, stilled. It was like a dream. She knew she should move – either leap back from this large shape that was about to send her sprawling to the cold, damp pavement; or, a moment later, when she realised it was a human man, and that he had finished hurtling, that she should reach down and help him up. But the instant stayed frozen for an uncounted time, lost to the world, as if her life was telling her to take note of this moment.
A loose black knitted beanie, the back of a honey-yellow jacket with a sheepskin lining at the neckline, dusty jeans and black work boots. A pair of old men had stopped across the road and were looking at them, and she imagined the scene through their eyes – a man supplicating, a woman staring down at him like some sort of pharaoh queen. On Brook Street at lunchtime on a cold, clear Tuesday in February.
‘Sorry. Are you okay?’ It was him talking, him apologising, when it should be her.
The man pushed himself up on his hands and knees, and finally Petra forced herself to move.
‘Jeez, are you alright? I’m just standing here like a…’ She squatted down and tentatively went for his waist to try and help him up, but her tote bag slipped from her shoulder and she didn’t know if she should touch him without his permission. A hesitance she’d picked up in England.
He had soft eyes in a gentle face, the skin of his forehead slightly care-weathered, Petra fancied; a trim beard with a bit of salt in it. He could be anything between thirty and late forties.
Petra forced herself to snap out of her stare again – this wasn’t the way she normally behaved, but there was something about this man that spoke of deep things, like home, familiarity, and love, and acceptance. In his eyes, she felt she didn’t have to choose a pose. If he could just keep looking at her like that, with those kind and open eyes, then she’d know that she belonged. She spent a lot of time later trying to understand this sense. Some people might call it love at first sight.
By this time, he had stood up and was gingerly swivelling his neck, crackling his spine back into place. On his right knee his jeans were ripped, but she didn’t know whether they had been before the fall. Because that’s what it had been, she now realised, piecing together the evidence of the fully extended metal ladder propped against the wall beside them, leading up to an open sash window on the first floor. A large canvas sack, heavy with something angular, was swinging by one handle from the top of the ladder.
‘What happened? What were you doing?’
‘Stupid,’ he said, brushing himself off. ‘I thought it would be easier to lower the stuff out the window than go all the way round the stairs. I was leaning too far out the window and I was distracted. I thought I saw someone… The rope slipped and I couldn’t let go and…’
‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘I would have…’ She tried to stuff the words back in her mouth but failed. ‘…remembered.’ She was blushing, she was sure. It felt hot in her clothes. She lowered her eyes and saw blood drooling from the muddy graze at his knee. ‘Oh, God – you’re bleeding. You’d better sort that out.’
He followed her gaze and waved it off. ‘Ah, it’s nothing. I’ll wash it off inside.’
‘Can I help you?’
‘Uh, I’ll be alright.’ He smiled. ‘Thanks.’ He bent and picked up her bag and offered it to her.
‘Okay. If you’re sure.’
He nodded and disappeared through the house’s red front door.
* * *
Petra stood watching the closed red door for a minute, as if it was going to do something remarkable. It was an English door, like you see on TV – a heavy, panelled and bevelled townhouse door – but it was freshly lacquered in good-luck red. At first glance the knocker set in its middle was like the others on this gentrified terrace of Victorian solid-brick abodes, but Petra noticed that it wasn’t a stylised lion or bull holding the iron ring in its mouth, but a mean-looking goat-horned imp – Pan, maybe. It looked at her, grinning, and she looked back until a man hurried past along the pavement towards town and Petra started to move off, not wanting to look like she was loitering.
For a moment she’d forgotten where she was going. Oh, right – to the MyHealth to check in on her mother. But now, jolted off her path, the idea of a surprise visit to her mother before a scheduled routine day procedure seemed odd and invasive – much the same as a surprise drop-in to her changing room or gynae appointment.
Just after Petra had finished university here, her father had died, and they’d agreed that Helena should come to England to be closer to her only child ‘in case anything happened’. Rod, her father, had been an Englishman – a Staffordshire mining engineer deployed to the Witwatersrand goldfields in the seventies – and they had all the requisite documents. At first Petra worried about the effect Helena’s arrival would have on her social life, but she needn’t have. Helena had always been able to look after herself, and made friends easily. Helena didn’t seem to need Petra’s looking-after – in fact, she didn’t need much of anything from her.
There were only twenty-five minutes left of her lunch break. Suki wouldn’t care if she was late back, of course, but Petra would. Keeping her dignity and sticking to her contracted hours in that mercy job was akin to a depressive getting dressed every morning – proving she still had some purpose in the grander scheme of things. The problem was, reality often didn’t match her expectations. She was self-aware enough to know she tended to drift through everyday life with her mind in a soft fantasy of what things should be: work, love, duty, fairness, belonging. Her fancy was far more compelling than mundane reality – she liked to hope, she liked to feel worthwhile, she liked to feel needed; she liked to wait for inspiration, which didn’t hit her all that often. This tendency to impracticality, she knew, didn’t make her a prime candidate for a career in anything. Bless Suki – she’d saved Petra from post-arts-degree destitution, and Petra wasn’t going to abuse her kindness.
Twenty-five minutes, now twenty-four, may not be enough to visit her mother, but it was enough to do something impetuous. She spun on her heel and strode back to Brook Street. At the red door, she tried to lift the knocker, but it was welded down, ornamental. An electronic keypad on the left side of the frame spoke subtly of the modern world. Before thinking too much, Petra pressed the buzzer button at the bottom and heard it sound loudly in the hall. A few heavy clatters and a volley of hammering answered her. No footsteps.
Come to think of it, the falling man hadn’t keyed in as far as she could remember. On the replay, he had swept inside, away from her, without a pause. She pushed at the door – and it swung open.
The hallway was longer than she’d imagined from the outside; it was more of corridor, the only light spilling from a bright doorway down the end, illuminating the dusty bootprints on the sealed-wood floor. Picture frames leaning against the skirting and a paint-flecked dropcloth draped over the open door of a closet, which had disgorged an assortment of weathered cardboard boxes brimming with files and papers and knots of what looked like electrical flex. The banging, then a heavy grate of shifting furniture, was coming from upstairs, accompanied by a loud, echoing phrase and a brief, barked laugh of men at work. Petra glanced behind her at the door, which had swung shut behind her. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. But her feet carried her onward, inward. She’d go as far as the lit room at the end of the corridor, and if she hadn’t found the stairs or any hint of the falling man, she’d turn back.
As she advanced, the creak of the floorboards mercifully swallowed up by the heavy noises from upstairs, Petra noticed that the frames leant against the skirting held album covers and photographs of musicians. ‘Two-Tone Zone’, a Madness-like group of zoot-suited jazzmen posing against a chequerboard backdrop; ‘The Sign of Six’, a collection of Rastas seated around an oil-drum fire under a graffitied urban bridge; some more modern-looking pop stars, with full-on glamour shots; and a long-haired, be-jeaned rock-folk guy she half recognised. Finally, a couple of framed golden records shyly facing the wall.
A recording studio, lined up here alongside the tidy homes? It shouldn’t surprise her, a lot of creative stuff happened in Leamington – games companies mostly, but also design and art and advertising and future tech, even some artists and novelists lurking. The hard part was knowing where to look. Since she’d come to England, she’d enjoyed imagining all the endeavour behind the narrow housefronts, all the private lives and public functions that happened behind those doors and those slender, serried windows. There was teeming variation behind those doors, and it was rare to get a look inside: a dentist’s appointment, that time she went with Helena to the solicitor’s office to witness her will, and the visits to those friends who’d invited her over. A small plaque, perhaps, a discreet name tag, would indicate a multi-million-pound enterprise rather than the brash steel, Perspex and neon signstacks you’d get in Joburg office parks. So, yeah, why not a recording studio too?
Petra had just squatted down to read the label on one of the gold records – The Specials – but she didn’t have time to take in anything else before the air reverberated like the building was imploding and a man careered around a corner she hadn’t even known was there.
‘Watch out, love!’ he called to her, and then was basically through the front door bearing the armload of planks or shelves with which he’d been hurtling down the stairs as if they were propelling him.
Her surprised exclamation died unheard and the air swirled by the plank-carrier settled. The banging and dragging upstairs had stopped and Petra could hear a lower conversation somewhere ahead of her, on this floor, and maybe one of the speakers was the falling man. She’d let him finish his conversation then say what she’d come back to say – before she lost her nerve. She hoped the conversation wouldn’t last too long.
She headed towards the bright room, thinking that was where the voices might be coming from, but when she got to the room, it was empty. The glow was coming from a blend of arc light filtered with cloud-grey cloth reflector hoods, as if this was a photographic studio, and the dull daylight coming in through vast bay windows looking out over a surprisingly large and open garden. The corridor jinked ninety degrees to the right here and the conversation was coming from the next room over, audible now.
‘You’ll have to get this stuff out, too. By tomorrow, yeah?’
‘Tomorrow?’ That was the falling man’s voice.
‘Wait. Listen. I thought you’d agreed with Gloria that we’d have till the end of the month. We need to find a buyer. We can’t just rip out the whole console and… I’ve got nowhere to keep it.’
‘Why don’t you just flog it online?’
‘It’s an Audient Eighty Twenty-Four… you can’t just flog it. It’s high-end kit. Nobody will just…’ The falling man paused, breathing in, clearly gathering himself to speak calmly. ‘It needs to find the right buyer.’
Petra was inching along the corridor as they spoke, trying to get a view through the door without being seen. She peered through the hinge-slit to see a short guy in a pinstriped suit and emerald-green braces showing her falling man his phone.
‘Here’s one on eBay for five hundred quid.’
The falling man took another deep breath and forced his voice to stay level as he looked at the man’s phone. ‘That’s one single preamp module, man. It’s a tiny part of the setup. The whole console goes for tens of thousands.’
‘Whatever. It needs to be gone. Tomorrow.’ The guy in the suit shrugged and Petra, sensing the conversation was over, scurried back into the light room next door as he answered a silent call.
‘I’ve got to ask Gloria what she wants to do with it,’ the falling guy said. ‘I’m clearing this place for her, not for you,’ he added, less confidently, to his back.
But the suited man was already talking on the phone, making it halfway along the corridor before stopping, as if he’d found himself a private-enough bubble. ‘Yeah, I hope so,’ he said, deliberately loud. ‘The boy’s dragging his feet and making excuses, but we’ll get it sorted.’ He listened for a moment. ‘Yeah… yeah.’ He laughed. ‘Yeah, you’re right. In a few a days this place will have a lot less soul… and all the better for it.’ Swallowing his chuckle in response to something said on the phone, he started off towards the front door again.
‘Don’t worry. Ned will sort out the electrical compliance.’ Pause. ‘Yes. These old buildings are always a little dodgy but there’s no reason to trouble the authorities. We’ll make sure it’s safe without their involvement.’
The last thing Petra heard of the conversation was, ‘It’s a great location, Curtis. It’s a great choice.’ He banged the door shut behind him.
Petra knew she should just go. She’d got in the middle of something she shouldn’t be involved in, and she didn’t want the guy to know she’d overheard what that arsehole had said. She thought she heard him moving something in the room next door, so she’d just hurry back down the corridor and leave. The moment had passed – or been punctured – anyhow.
She took a breath and stepped out of her hiding place behind the door – and straight into the falling man.
He frowned for a moment, and then smiled, and his expression – of happiness-to-see-her, of welcome, of hospitality – made her buzz inside, made her organs literally resonate with him.
He looked at her, but didn’t help her fill in any words.
She straightened up, put her shoulders back, cocked her hip, would have flicked her hair back if she’d had the arm room: he was standing quite close, neither of them had really moved apart since they’d almost run into each other. ‘I didn’t want to leave without, you know, swapping numbers.’
‘For observation purposes, you know. You were injured and I’d fail in my duty of care if I left you without following up.’
‘You have a duty of care?’
She looked into his eyes, he looked back. It was still there, that gut-pull. She hadn’t imagined it.
He thought for a moment, studying her face. He took his phone out of his pocket. ‘I guess it wouldn’t hurt,’ he said. ‘Duty of care and all.’
She handed him her phone, an act of trust that struck her as unspeakably intimate the few times she had done it. He typed his name and number and handed it back, the plastic slab completing the circuit between them. Falling Guy would be known as Vincent Rice from now on. She texted him back. <Petra. Care and observation.> By the time she thought that sounded a bit cringey and stalkerish, it was too late, but the corner of his mouth twitched.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Duty done. I’ll call you about our follow-up appointment.’
‘Yeah, there might be, you know, after-effects.’ He walked her to the door.
‘Oh. Just an idiot.’
‘I heard what he said. I’m sure you did, too.’
He shrugged, unwilling to be drawn out.
‘People shouldn’t be allowed to act like that.’
‘Of course not, but they do.’
‘What’s happening here?’ Petra asked. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Dismantling the studio, clearing everything out. My grandfather died last year and those guys just bought the place. I’m clearing his things for my nan, then helping them subdivide.’
‘Sorry. That must be hard.’
‘Yeah. But I’d rather be involved. If Picton and Worthing had their way, they’d throw my granddad’s whole life’s work in the tip.’
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