Conversation 30



Philippe Allard

153 waste chutes, cables, chains, scaffolding
10 x 12.5 x 10.5 m

Disciplined Drowning

Andrew Battershill

None of the top fifty Backgammon players in the world was online, and it was a particularly rank-smelling day in Budapest, so he sat at his closed window and watched the men outside destroy the road. They’d been destroying the street outside his apartment for the last three months, and in Budapest that is called construction.

He had moved there four years ago to be a spy, and now he was the best online Backgammon player in the world. He was also a spy, so while playing or studying Backgammon for eight hours a day on his laptop, he was also waiting for the small computer with just the one program on it to beep and display six lines of text telling him that it was time to go to an address, retrieve whatever the screen said to and kill everyone inside. The small computer had not yet made a sound or displayed a word, and he hoped abstractly that when it finally did, the address would be for a small apartment with only a few people in it. But hope doesn’t matter to spies very much or very often, and even when it does can only ever do it abstractly.

Having every loose hour of the day to think, he had realized that he was probably not a spy at all, but rather an assassin or a soldier. Probably spies talk to anyone else. He was definitely the best online Backgammon player in the world. That didn’t need to be thought about, because online Backgammon has numeric rankings and spies and soldiers and assassins are just infinitely adjustable words. 

He remembered almost every single thing he’d said or done or focused on in his adult life. And he remembered it all like a marble countertop, as something hard and beautiful and cool to the touch. Something certain and impenetrable and incredibly valuable only because of how it gorgeous it looked and how soothing it was to sometimes brush with your fingers and how much value other people said it had. So much value.

There were two construction workers on the road. One was a cancerously thin man between 45 and 70 years old who kept one cigarette burning down in his mouth without breathing for the entire afternoon. The other worker was a young man with a mohawk who was almost certainly a Neo-Nazi MMA fighter with a summer job. 

The old man paced the sidewalk aimlessly studying the concrete as if it were a vegetable garden he was checking for slugs, then he pointed to a spot on the pavement and the young man smashed that spot incredibly violently with the sledgehammer. Then, the two of them sat on the sidewalk, their legs stretched out, passing a tiny, bottomless canteen of water back and forth before the old man stood, wandered a few feet forward and found another spot. They did this exact thing for five straight hours.

The spy was from Russia, or some other place just as full of oil and cybercrime and cybercrimes about oil. But this, again, did not really matter and was not worth thinking about. Not when there are new online Backgammon players entering the rankings every single minute of every single day. 

He had lived in Budapest for four years, and he had been a spy who spent 98% of his waking minutes in a small, necessarily hot and dusty Hungarian apartment, and he would be a spy for one more year and then he’d be given the number to a bank account with half-a-million Euros in it, and then he would take those half-a-million Euros to Monaco and try to make them into at least 2.5 million Euros playing high stakes Backgammon in real life. And, by the time he did that he hoped he’d know enough about marble countertops to really want to get one of his own and have strong feelings about which one to buy.

Eventually, the old man looked at his watch and nodded at the young man, who dropped his sledgehammer right where he was standing. They wandered away in opposite directions. 

The spy stayed at his window until the 94th best online Backgammon player in the world logged on, and he thought that was good enough. He used a more aggressive doubling strategy than he should have, lost, and was no longer the best online Backgammon player in the world.

He punched himself very hard in the temple seven times. Then he did 20 chin ups in the doorway to his four-foot-by-four-foot bathroom, ate three soft-boiled eggs as a treat, and read a book about an intergalactic gambler who saves a space colony that’s really an allegory about the environmental collapse of this our drowning world until he fell asleep.


A thing he’d say if he ever talked to anyone else: the expression “roll the dice” doesn’t mean what it means. It means the opposite. It is used to talk about taking a chance and embracing uncertainty. But rolling dice doesn’t expand the world of chance—it narrows it. Six sides, six numbers, and six perfectly likely results. On this our drowning world how often can only six things possibly happen? When you roll the dice, you are not launching yourself into the boundless ocean of chance, you are locking yourself in the cozy, airless closet of certainty.

Once, for nine weeks in an abandoned missile silo, he’d taken a graduate-level game theory class where at the end of every day he and the other twenty future spy-soldier-assassins had a free-for-all with bean-bag guns, dummy knives, and their ungloved fists that didn’t end until the last guy quit. So, he knew better than most people that if you get a second of your life where there are only six thousand things that can possibly happen, you are doing well. Six possibilities and you’re in the only heaven that’s ever been close to real, the one your mind goes to if it’s sharp and barren enough to truly love math.

That morning, he sat at his desk not studying or playing backgammon on his computer. Instead, he looked at the little computer that never lit up. The little computer that only made the one sound that would only make him do the one thing. He thought about doing that thing. About walking into a room and killing every single person in it for no reason other than that he had always wanted someone else to tell him what to do and give him money to do it. He sat at his desk and looked at the computer and thought about dice and time and all the things that can happen and don’t. About where all the things that don’t happen go after they are somehow finished never happening. 


He heard the man next door whose mouth was a spring pond moated with cherry blossoms go outside for a cigarette. The spy stood and walked outside and used the dingy puddle of his mouth to smile at the man next door whose mouth now that he was closer to it seemed more like a sinkhole that had swallowed a Chilean village surrounded by a fence that was just the smell from between two legs too thin to ever touch by accident. 

After a while, he said the whole thing about the expression rolling the dice, and the man who lived next door changed the entire geography of this our drowning world by smiling in a sort of side-long way and flicked his still burning cigarette high over the courtyard and in a voice that was also a very thick drink of homemade liquor the neighbour asked what he called it when he went into a stranger’s apartment and let him suck his dick, then?


The spy used two feet that were cast iron pans wrapped in bubble wrap to walk back to his apartment. Once inside, he used a breathing technique they teach you in case you ever have to shoot someone in the head from a few hundred yards away. It also works if you’re trying to turn two cast iron pans wrapped in bubble wrap back into two human feet. 

He used the feet to walk the rest of the way to his desk and he didn’t need to look carefully at the computer because all it was supposed to do was light up and display six lines of text. 

He didn’t bother to look at the six lines of text he’d been waiting four years to see, since it’s not worth looking at something you’re only allowed to miss by a few minutes that you’ve already missed by a few hours, especially when having missed it ensures your violent death. Instead, he swept by and grabbed his desk chair and swung it into the hollow part of his wall. He moved at an even, unhurried, and very fast pace. He stripped naked and strapped a long belt full of ammunition clips to his chest, checked and loaded the travel gun, then went to his bedroom to find the cleanest of his black T-shirts and jeans.

At this time of the morning, the dusty, angry business of Budapest’s resentful downtown was cool and quiet and calmly soaked in the gorgeous tragedy of history and time just keeping going. He walked with the brisk pace of a recently retired lawyer who is used to hurrying everywhere and is now just going to an old woman’s bakery to get a fresh morning loaf of bread. He arrived at an address that was not from the little screen on his little computer. 

The spy turned left down the alley, walked the correct number of paces, and climbed up the drainpipe, looking like a monkey who had grown up in a place where drainpipes are tree branches and crumbling Hungarian apartment blocks are trees and the forest floor is nothing but the cracks in old stone.   

He got to the correct window and considered it for about the length of time that passes between water entering a mouth and nothing being tasted. Then, he grabbed the top ledge and used a few very specific abdominal muscles to launch himself feet first through the window. He did not do a forward roll when he landed because that was inefficient. He laid back and shot the shape of a man twice in the middle. 

He didn’t stand because it wasn’t efficient to stand. He waited, lay flat on the floor until a man who was more than a shape because you could see his blank but somehow also sad eyes came around the corner, and the spy shot this man between two eyes that weren’t shapes but actual eyes you could see the shallow parts of. And then, because efficiency was no longer mortally important, he stood up and took a little second for himself and brushed off a small piece of glass the shape of moon who wishes she was just easy enough to be a crescent.

The spy went to the invisible hole under the floor of the closet and took all the stacks of all the bills of all the kinds of currency he knew were there, and he didn’t count them because he knew the number and because the number did not matter in the least. He went to the invisible hole behind the freezer and took out all the stacks of all the bills of all the kinds of currency he knew were there and the passports and health cards and university IDs and gym club cards he knew were there and took out the ones that looked like what he’d look like if he were a person who was allowed to carry a wallet.

He went to the train station and got on a train and sat in one compartment with four other silent men and one man who talked about what Nairobi on a business trip was like and what three divorces were like and what looking into the senseless eyes of the baby who will change not just your life but the whole reality of what life is. And then the spy was in the Paris he’d dreamed about for the short while after learning to read but before he’d stopped dreaming because of all the focus drugs and sleeping drugs and wrestling other men into submission and being wrestled by other men into submission and then waiting for four years at a computer that would only ever go off at the only wrong time.

He moved through this Paris, which because his dreams had been as small and hopeful as he was big and sad, was exactly the Paris of his dreams. He had not dreamed about a hotel in Paris, so he did not go to one. He found one spot under and beside the Pont de Marie, and he stayed in that spot, watching all the Parisians he hadn’t dreamed about specifically but was so, so, so happy to watch move rudely across the bridge at each other, carrying things and pushing things with babies in them and wearing clothes that wage slaves had made, and he did not think about any of them at all, because when you finally have the chance and you’re finally in the Paris of your dreams and you’ve finally been forced to have the courage to stop rolling dice the last thing to do is think.

These days, there is always a chip in someone. Because he was strong and trained, he was able to stand still in one spot watching for a very long time, and he did that. Watching not thinking in one spot, until the shape of another person shot him in the back of the head and walked away along the water, too much of a shape and not enough of a person to ever be described by any of the people who hadn’t been watching the spy who’d been watching them.