An expansive absence of colour fills my view. A single, naked bulb – pure, cold – blurs into my opening eyes. This is not my flat.
The realisation rocks me like a shot of tequila.
A sickly wave of confusion runs through me as I look left and right and find myself faced with the same panorama. I lay there on my back, afraid almost to move, fingers raking the unfamiliar sheets – too coarse, too worn. The duvet, pulled up to my chest and tucked in on either side in a manner not done to me since I was a child, feels too cold, as if I haven't been here long enough for my body's heat to seep into it. Done to me, I repeat the thought.
I must have been drunk, I think, and yet my head is as clear as a mountain stream. Even so, when I do eventually gather the courage to sit up, I still expect to be hit by a wave of nausea, by the poisonous dehydration and regret that must have been lying in wait, dormant, poised for any movement as a signal to pounce. But it doesn't come.
Instead, I feel fine. Rested, a little bleary-eyed perhaps, but normal. I am as I expect to be; as I should be. I haven't changed. And yet, the world around me clearly has.
I should be looking at blue curtains drawn over a bay window, sunlight slicing through the crack between and catching dust in the air in the same way that it cuts down in columns through clouds to heat seagull wings skimming the ocean. There should be a writing desk on my peripheral vision, a laptop closed atop of it with a red battery light winking at me. And beyond those, there should be a door – probably left ajar – distancing but not silencing the drip-drip-drip of a cistern in the shadows. And another door should be on my right, closed even though I live alone.
There are no doors.
In fact, almost nothing is here. Just four identical, whitewashed walls, any of which could be mistaken for the ceiling (or the floor for that matter) if gravity was removed. Six indistinguishable rectangles affixed invisibly together into a cube. Like the inside of a giant dice waiting to be rolled, I think, but the idea brings a wave of vertigo so I don't pursue it.
The only thing in this white room without black curtains – without even the windows that would necessitate curtains - is the bed, dead in the centre. Single, white (of course), flat packed – probably – and otherwise completely nondescript. Ordinary. In fact, it is almost too ordinary, like it has been mass-produced for a dormitory and should be flanked by other identical specimens on either side; uniform, without any features or what could be called design. Standard issue.
I'm still sitting up. The cover has fallen onto my lap and I shiver a little, though it is not really cold. I lift it up and glance at my body beneath to confirm what I can sense: I'm naked.
I never sleep naked; not even after sex.
At the back of my mind somewhere is the niggling sensation that I should be panicking, that I am in some sort of trouble, that a timer is ticking, counting down, moving towards stopping (or something starting). Perhaps it's because my brain is still part asleep, but I'm not panicking yet. Instead, I'm trying to piece together the night before, to wind back the reel to the last scene and then play it back, pausing at anything that might explain how I ended up here.
I got home, I remember that clear as day, though the day had by then almost completely paled to night. I cooked dinner, the sizzle of the fish frying in the oil half drowning out the music in the background – Nirvana? Thin Lizzy? The White Stripes? I don't think it matters. I ate, alone, sitting cross-legged on the floor with my back to the sofa, plate atop the glass coffee table; a movie was on, I remember that, then the news, but I wasn't really watching. I had a glass of wine – no, two – then put the bottle in the fridge, showered, and got into bed. My bed, in my bedroom, in my flat, in London.
I couldn't sleep. I pulled off my t-shirt and masturbated into it without removing my underwear. Then I slept.
And now I'm here.
I run through everything again, checking that I haven't omitted or overlooked any detail that might prove significant, haven't missed a beat, skipped a page, but there's nothing more. I didn't get up in the night, I didn't go to the bathroom, no one knocked on the door, the phone didn't ring.
Nothing but sleep.
I go back further, bit by bit, carefully rewinding the day as if it were a chewed-up cassette tape and I a pencil. I took the tube home, Holborn to Hammersmith, no changes. I had a seat – a rarity worth recalling – and stared at a newsfeed on my phone the whole journey, headphones on but nothing playing. Five-minute walk, cool but not cold, a gentle rain not wasted on an umbrella. Key in the door.
Back again. I'd finished later than usual, but not unusually so. Lucy was still there, eating sushi at her desk, acting as night editor in case something happened around the world while the UK slept, black coffee from the machine sitting precariously close to her keyboard. We didn't speak. Put my jacket on, walked through the office, a wink to the young cleaner, a smile to the old one, lift, corridor, nod at the night receptionist. Then outside into the silky fumes of the city, the day's last cigarette as I walked through air that was a degree warmer without the rain that was to become on the other side of the tunnel. Scuffed floor, green tiles, ticket barrier beep, shoulders barging, train.
Back further. A Friday like any other. Checked emails, edited an article, submitted another, proofread for the Culture Desk, coffee, lunch – Mexican, ordered in, eaten at my desk – writer's block, an idea that came to nothing, then another that kept me there late. What was it? The rebirth of the music press? That was it. Wishful thinking. Another notch on the wall, another box crossed off.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I go back through several days of memories, all as good as identical. I keep watch for suspicious characters, strange events, anomalies, but there is nothing that even makes me pause, let alone worth replaying. And though I'm struck by how few words I've spoken in my recent past, there is no thread that leads here.
I still don't even know what I'm looking for, I think, shaking my head.
I give up and swing my legs out of the bed. If I'd had my eyes closed, I'm not sure I'd even have noticed that I'd made contact with the floor, and when my feet touch down, it is neither warm nor cold, neither tile nor wood, carpet or lino; just white. If I had to guess, I'd guess plastic, but I wouldn't like to put money on it. The bedcover a monk's cloak around me, I stand up and start exploring the room with it trailing over the floor in my wake.
I cross over to the nearest wall a couple of metres away and pat it over with a palm, testing its surface. Then I knock it with knuckles while pressing press an ear to it; flat, dull, silent. I make a full circuit of the room, one hand on the flat white of the walls as I pass, fingertips brushing over their surfaces as if I am one half of a couple walking through tall grass. They are as they looked from the bed; empty squares, blank canvases, a giant sheet of paper folded into shape.
If it weren't for the bed, I think, stopping after a complete circuit, I would have no idea if this was where I started. The thought is unnerving.
There is no door, I am sure now. No letterbox, no trapdoor, no attic hatch, no catflap, no peephole, no glory hole, no… no way in or out.
Finally, I start to panic.
I and the bedcover slump to the floor, white wine slopped onto a white tablecloth. My heart pounds and I feel droplets of perspiration forming on my forehead, though they don't fall. My hands open and close, grabbing and releasing handfuls of air, then lock into two fists trying to squeeze some logic into reality.
There is no clock, and my wrist is as bare as the rest of me, so I have no idea how long I sit like this. The panic eventually passes with the time, though I can sense that it has only faded into the background, ready to reappear at a moment's notice, as opposed to actually gone away.
I climb back on to the bed and lay down.
I must have been brought here, I think, and the thought brings a fragile relief. So, if I just wait, someone will appear - surely. Wherever I am, it must be somewhere itself. I mean, this room must be in a building, so someone must come into it at some point, even if only to turn the light off.
I hope they don't turn the light off.
I'll wait in this place where the sun never shines, where the shadows run from themselves. The line loops over and over in my head like a metronome. And though it quickly becomes irritating, at least it is proof that time still exists, even if nothing else seems to.
They appear suddenly, immediately close, as if dropping down from above, and echo off of walls other than my own.
I am still laying on the bed in a hazy daydream when the first step falls, and it doesn't register as reality. But I properly hear the second, and by the third, I am sitting bolt upright.
Three more and they scuff to a halt, very close to me. Try as I might though, I can't locate where they stopped. If you told me they had come from above, I'd believe as equally as if you said they were coming from in front of me, or behind. Or below.
Silence again. I listen hard, slowly turning my ears one way then another, holding my breath.
A slot opens with a sudden metallic creak like an old bicycle doing an emergency stop. I catch the movement on the edge of my vision - the wall to my right. I snap my head round and stare at it.
It looks for all intents and purposes like a letterbox, except it is right down at the base of the wall and has opened outwards instead of inwards so that I can't see the flap of wall drawn back.
Even though it almost hurts to do so after so much time looking at nothing but white, I stare at the black rectangle, rendered immobile by its presence. I don't know what I expect to see in the darkness beyond it: a pair of cartoon eyes floating there, perhaps, or a rat. Perhaps even a letter.
What appears instead, shoved through with enough force that it skids along the floor a good metre, is a tray of food. Then the slot slaps shut, snapping me out of it.
I scramble off the bed to the wall, forgetting the bed cover, and almost slip on the tray as I race to the wall, my penis slapping on my thighs. The footsteps are fading as quickly as they appeared.
"Hey!" I shout, pressing my face against the wall. "Hey!" I pound my fist against it too.
But the footsteps continue on and then, as if they've gone over a precipice, disappear.
I drop to the floor and try to find the edges of the slot, frantically raking the surface of the wall where I think I remember it was. I glance back at the tray to check – yes! It was here! I run my fingernails over the wall again, more slowly this time, as you do when looking for the end of a roll of sticky tape, but there is nothing. Just a perfect, flat, white surface.
"Hey!" I try one more time, but I can sense that I am alone once more.
For a moment, I think I might cry, an echo of childhood rising in my throat, but I keep a hold on myself. Slumped with my back against the wall, I do at least allow myself a moment of despair and bang my head against my knees a few times to bat it away.
When I eventually remember the tray, I am almost immediately overcome with ravenous hunger.
White tray, white bowl, white plate, white cup and saucer, white plastic cutlery. Even the food is as good as white: bread roll, creamy mushroom soup. The only anomaly is the water, slopped into the saucer from its less-than-careful entrance, tainted with the weakest hint of blue. I savour the colour, looking into its depths; I'm me, the cup a ship, the water the ocean.
As plain as it looks, I shovel the meal in unceremoniously, mouthful after mouthful, leaving the water until last. I don't think I've ever eaten in complete silence before; conversational silence, sure - pretty much every time I eat in fact – but never total silence. Even when I choose not to flick on the TV or some music, there is always the gentle gusts of traffic nearby, the odd plane overhead, and the general background static of the city.
But there's none of that now. And in the vacuum, I pick up sounds from within my body I've never noticed before: the squeak of molars on bread, a click from my jaw hinges each time I swallow, the trickle of soup into the acid pool in my stomach, the whistle of air through my nostrils. It is like my ears have turned inwards in the absence of external stimulation.
When I'm done, I sit back against the wall again, back in control of my emotions.
Right, I think. I'm not going to starve, that's something. And there is someone else here… sort of. That's something else. A plan quickly forms.
I'll stay where I am – exactly where I am – facing the place where the slot was opened. I might not be able to find it from inside, but I'll be able to reach it the moment it opens next time, next meal. I'll hear the person approaching, six steps of warning, six degrees of separation, then – open! With my hand shoved through, stopping them from closing it, they'll have to talk to me.
As I wait, I battle to ignore a series of doubts as they flare like cars passing through the night on a distant motorway in the countryside. What if they still don't say anything? Or beat my hand back? Or cut it off?
What if that was my last meal?
No - plastic cutlery, they want me alive. But what if…
In the end, the biggest problem gnawing at me is an urge to fall asleep. Without anything to see or do or listen to, surrounded by a complete absence of stimulation, passing through what must be hours, all I want to do is close my eyes. I can feel my breathing slowing, deepening, regulating, and catch myself leaning back against the bed. I get up and pace back and forth in a straight line between the wall and the bed, determined not to lose the spot where the slot appeared, a place that only continues to exist in my memory. And I count my steps, a forced mental exercise, but find I lose track when I am somewhere around 450 and give up before 500.
I slump back down and this time let my head rest on the bed without protest. I close my eyes and I think I fall asleep, although whether or not it is for a few seconds or a few hours, I have no idea.
I dream of many things that slip from recollection the moment they enter it. And I dream of a footstep. And then, with that conscious awareness that you sometimes have while unconscious, I start to peel away the layers of sleep and hear another.
Doziness discarded like a cigarette butt, I scramble up and almost leap to the wall, landing on my haunches with my hands poised to strike the moment the slot appears.
The steps come to a halt with a slight scuff of the heels, just as they did before. And the slot opens.
But not in the same place.
I hear the same complaining hinges but am thrown by the unbroken white before me. For a second, I just stare, dumbfounded, at the blankness framed by my hands. But then the sliding entrance of another tray brings me out of it.
I jump to my feet, scan the room.
There! On the opposite side!
I jump over the bed, almost clearing it but catching my foot on the edge of the mattress so that I land on all fours and send the contents of the tray shattering across the floor. A plate shatters and food slops everywhere. I look up, see the slot, reach for it, and touch solid wall as it snaps shut a second too soon.
"Ah!" I cry out in primal, aggressive frustration directed in equal measure at the slot, the person behind it, and myself.
The steps start up walking away.
"For fuck's sake!" I shout to the ceiling before putting my head in my hands. I'm about to cry, I think, but then I notice that the steps have stopped.
"Er… h-hello?" I say to the wall. I get to my feet and press myself against it. "Hello? I.. you.. are you…who are you?"
There's a pause, probably only a slight one, although to me it's weighed down and seems to take forever to drag itself away. Then the steps start up again, turn a corner – I imagine - and are gone.
"Hey!" I scream, thumping the wall. "Hey! HEY!"
With an effort, I prize my eyes open and stretch out my arms. My muscles feel like they are just coming out of a long hibernation.
I'm tucked in again, the bedcover tight over my chest. For a not unpleasant moment, I am eight years old once more; I fell asleep in front of the TV and Dad carried me to bed. But the years rapidly return to me.
I pull the cover off and sit up, stifling a yawn and the urge to lay back again. My neck joints crack as I roll my head around and blink away the stickiness on my eyelids.
The trays are gone.
The implication hits me hard in the gut a blink after the realization, knocking the wind and the last of the sleep out of me. I take in the full room, looking everywhere, even under the bed, but they are definitely gone.
And so are the plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, and any evidence of the mess I made of the second tray. No evidence remaining.
If I couldn't see it right in front of me, I don't think I would believe it. I start to doubt that they'd been there in the first place, to entertain the possibility that I'd imagined them, or that I am in fact just waking up for the first time and everything else has been a dream.
But that can't be true. I'm not all that hungry for one thing, or thirsty for another. I ate what didn't spill from the second tray, I'm sure of it. I run my tongue over my teeth, around my mouth, trying to find any remnants of the meal. But soup, for all its faults, doesn't get stuck in your teeth. And bread gets soggy, then sweet, then eventually dissolves – I remember learning that in school. I glance down to see if any drips or flecks are on my clothes and then, faced with a hairy expanse of pasty flesh, remember that I am naked. Even so, I still give myself a once over, examine my pubic hair for crumbs, the bedsheets for stains. Nothing.
Still, I refuse to believe that I am losing my grip on reality. I jump up and make several slow circuits of the room - not a thought given to my nakedness this time around - patting, knocking, and running my palms over the totality of the walls' surfaces, even jumping to touch the last few centimeters just out of reach before they folded over and became the ceiling.
Then on my hands and knees, I do the same with the floor like I'm trying to buff it to a perfect shine, rubbing the whole surface, fingering the corners, reaching under the bed.
Standing on the bed next, I explore the ceiling as far as I can reach from that central platform; I'd drag the bed around to reach the rest of it if I could, but I soon discover that it is bolted to the floor.
I've worked up a bit of a sweat by now and am slightly out of breath. I sit cross-legged at the foot of the bed and am about to put my head in my hands – which are spotlessly clean despite having touched almost every inch of the space – but stop myself. Don't give up yet, Dave, I think. Think.
So, I can't find a door, but that doesn't mean there isn't one, does it? Plenty of things that exist even though you can't see them, aren't there? My internal organs, for example, or power, or love. Or me, at this moment in time. Just got to be patient, to think. Think, god damn it, Dave. Think!
My foot is tapping incessantly as I go over and over things, talking through them in a cyclical monologue, trying to convince myself that I still have some agency, some power. This goes on for some time until I realise that my foot is telling me that I need to piss, and once I do the urge becomes irrepressible. Soon, both feet are tapping frantically and I can think of nothing else. I hold my penis and try to massage the urge away, but quickly find that I'm squeezing it to hold back the torrent.
On my feet now, dancing from one to the other and still holding my penis so that I must resemble a horny chimpanzee, I look about frantically, although I already know there is no toilet, no urinal, no litter tray, nowhere to go. In the end, I think fuck it and hop over to the nearest corner.
The instant I stop squeezing it, a high-powered stream of urine shoots out from my penis and hits the wall, splash-back splattering my stomach and legs in an almost refreshing mist – clear piss, I notice; the piss of someone well hydrated, of he who has drunk recently. Soon it is pooling at my feet and I need to step back to avoid treading in it.
The relief is without compare.
As is often the way - standing there, cock in hand, in an act that stretches back all the way through evolution - I decide what to do.
I shake the last of the piss away then climb on the bed and squat down, ready to move at the instant I know where. Eyes closed, I focus every mental faculty I have on my ears, listening hard to the still air in the room.
I stay like that for a long time, rolling my head around to relieve the tightness rapidly settling into my neck. My leg muscles are soon screaming and refuse to quiet no matter how much I shift my weight around. But eventually, I'm rewarded: I hear the person approaching again. This time though, I do my best to ignore the steps and wait instead for the sound of the slot opening, wait to locate it before…
I twist fully around and pounce, vaulting over the head of the bed and pushing off the floor again the instant I land, launching myself forward and over the tray that is sliding in across the floor. Arms outstretched, I hit the ground just short of the wall but skid forward the last few centimeters, my stomach squeaking over the ground, and succeed in jamming my right hand into the opening. When whoever is outside goes to shut it, it bounces off my knuckles with a dull thunk.
"Ha!" I shout. "Ha!" Then, overcome, I start to laugh. The slot is drawn back and slams into my hand, much harder this time. Then pain cuts through my laughter.
"Right," I say, trying to sound as authoritative as possible whilst lying prostrate and naked in a cell. "I want some answers. What is going on? Why am I here?"
At first, there is silence. Then I can feel a foot placed on the flap and pressure starting to be applied. The metal edge starts to dig into my hand.
"Oh, come on! Just tell me… ow! Just tell me what the fuck is going on!"
The pressure on my hand stops increasing, holds steady.
"Who are you?"
"Why am I here?"
I let my chin rest on the floor. "How do I get out?"
I might be imagining it, but I think the pressure eases just a little bit.
Whoever is on the other side takes a breath, or at least that is what I assume the shift in air to be; it could just as easily have been the flap of a wing or a distant breeze. Then a voice that could be male or female, deep yet thin, melodic yet somehow out of tune, says: "you must confess, that is all."
"Confess?" I say slowly as the word registers. I try moving into a seating position without removing my hand from the opening and succeed only in making myself less comfortable. "But what am I supposed to have… Ah!"
They have put their full weight onto the flap and, man or woman, it is a considerable amount. It feels as if every bone in my hand will snap at any moment. Tears are immediately squeezed from my eyes.
"Fuck! Ah! Ge-get-get off! Ah!"
The pressure is released and I yank my hand in. The slot slams closed an instant after, returning the wall to its unbroken state. The person starts walking away and, cradling my crushed hand in the other close to my chest, I scramble to my feet and press myself up against the wall.
Red-faced and hoarse, I scream: "confess to what?!"
My hand is pretty sore, and I'm sure I'm going to have some impressive bruising appear soon, but I don't think anything is broken. I leave it to rest on my lap, palm up as if waiting to catch the rain.
I'm sitting with my back to the wall exactly where I slumped after my captor had walked away again, absently picking at the food with my good hand while trying to fathom my new understanding of the situation.
What I am supposed to have done? I keep thinking. It has got to be something pretty serious for me to have been incarcerated like this. I mean, who has the capability to snatch you in your sleep? Who has access to a… cell like this?
But no matter how hard I rake the sand of my life, I can't think of anything I could possibly have done that could have led to me being here, not a single thread, or even a single dot, let alone a whole sequence to join. They must have the wrong person, I realise. It can't be me.
Unless this is a Catholic-flavor confession, I think. Masturbation and sin?
Not that it matters either way. To get out, I have to confess. That is all I know.
I'm like some spy in a thriller, me against the world. No, that would be too exciting. This is… I don't even know what this is. It's like being locked up by the Red Guards or something, begging my guilt to nameless crimes. I picture myself standing on a stool for hours on end, a hand-painted sign hung around my neck emblazed with 'bourgeois' or 'traitor of the people', struggling against the ideology of my own existence, surrounded by white walls baying for my blood. Walls that will get washed once they're through with me.
That must be why they're so clean.
This is what is going round and round in my head, a carousel of fates circling, rising and falling, projected onto the white screen before me. And it is all I see for a long time.
But then I blink and, for a moment, focus on the room and see that the slot has been opened – is sitting open – on the wall directly in front of me.
I blink again to be sure then scramble over to it. I push my good hand into it, a little more hesitantly than before, although a part of me knows that this time it isn't going to be shut. For one thing, no tray has been pushed through; for another, this slot has opened halfway up the wall. The darkness beyond is silent but something - perhaps some primal instinct, the unconscious parts of my brain picking up on tiny movements or a slight change in temperature - tells me that my captor is there.
"I… er… I think there has been some sort of mistake," I begin, returning to the more rational starting point of my thoughts. "You must have the wrong person. I mean, I… I haven't done anything."
"What could I possibly have done? I pay my rent, my taxes, bills; I've never stolen anything, never skipped a restaurant without paying, I… I don't even drive... speeding, I mean. Whatever it is that I am supposed to have done then, well… it must be a mix-up, a case of mistaken identity. If you could just tell me what it is that I am accused of, I… I…, I'm sure I'll be able to clear it up or… or… help you check into… whatever it is; to clear my name."
The person outside shifts their weight – a tiny shuffle of clothing, the briefest scuff of shoe – as if patiently waiting but says nothing.
"Oh come on! Give me something, for fuck's sake!" I shout, taking my hand out of the slot and putting my back against the wall, and sliding down to the floor. Cross-legged, head in my hands, genitals touching the floor, I must look pretty dejected. "I've never done anything…"
"Are you sure?" says my captor. They must be speaking directly into the slot as I can feel their breath on my ear.
"Never? Never done anything you regret? Anything you wish you could change? There is no time in your past you'd go back to and rewrite, if you had the power to do so?"
"Well… no, yes. Of course, but… everyone has things they regret, don't they? That's not a crime, though, is it?"
"You want to me confess my regrets?"
My captor clears their throat but says nothing.
"You do, don't you?" I am almost laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea. "To apologise for hiding smelly Mark Miltimore's football cards? For topping dad's booze bottles up with water? For… for…!" I can't hold it back anymore and start laughing uncontrollably.
My captor waits while I compose myself and then says: "Shall I record those officially?"
"Then you'll be back."
"You're serious, aren't you?" I say after a moment, as much to myself as to the person on the other side. Perhaps that is why they don't reply.
Without warning, the slot slaps shut, sounding like an industrial door this close to my ear, and I hear the footsteps moving away. I must have gotten used to it being open as the sudden severing of that single remaining link with the outside world drowns me in a wave of panic. I jump up and press myself against the wall.
"One… one more question!"
The steps stop.
"Erm...," I begin, trying to think of something to say. "What… what time is it?"
"Five," the person says without hesitation, then one more step, and they are gone.
I've made it back to the bed and lain down, with my hands behind my head before I realise I don't know if it is five am or five pm.
I could confess to anything, I think. Just make up a list of plausible-sounding regrets from the past and hide myself behind them, draw a character on a blank sheet of A4 and present him as the true me. For some reason though, and I'm not really sure what that reason is, I know that I won't be able to do that. Sure, I could start off OK, rehearse a few stories and reel them off one by one – am or pm, I've got time to think up just about anything – but the minute they start asking me questions, probing, I feel sure I'll start to make loops in my string of lies. As they stood there, listening, I'd trip myself up somewhere, or start to lose my confidence and switch to the truth anyway. The silence forces you to second guess everything, to assume what they are thinking, and that can be dangerous.
OK, so I tell the truth. Some truth. A few truths.
What harm could it do? It's not like I've committed any capital offences. And besides, at least that way I'll be doing what they want, and that's got to be the only sure-fire way of getting out of here.
Right, regrets. I've had a few. But who hasn't?
"Are you ready?"
I've been boxed in white silence for so long, broken only by the minimal noise I can generate slurping soup and chewing, that the sudden intrusion sounds impossibly loud and makes me start.
I swing my legs off the bed and walk to where the slot has appeared halfway up a side wall, ignoring the soreness in my lower back as I straighten up on route. "I guess so."
"Begin at your leisure."
"Well, it… it took me a while to come up with anything," I start, laughing self-consciously. "And… and it's all trivial stuff, really, but it's all I've got. As long as I confess something though, that's all I need to do, right?"
"Right." I sit down with my back to the wall so that the slot is next to my ear. I imagine they are sitting in a mirror image of myself on the other side so that our backs would be touching were it not for the barrier between us.
It takes me a while to get started. I start then stop then start all over again, like turning the ignition of a car that has been locked in a garage for years. Eventually, though, I do get going and fumble through a few insignificant things I've prepared: dropping out of college, never saving any money, a couple of tattoos.
Soon, though, I get into the flow, and I catch myself saying: "Ellie. That is another thing I regret." This wasn't something I'd planned on confessing.
"My first girlfriend," I continue, undeterred. "Well, technically, she was my third, but she was the first proper one, if you know what I mean. She was 15, I was 16, and it was love for four months. Ha! Almost sounds like a soppy sixties pop song, doesn't it?"
The person recording all this on the other side clears their throat. I can hear a pencil frantically scratching on paper like a mouse running under dry leaves.
"Yeah, well. I guess I regret how that ended," I continue. When I'd begun a few minutes earlier, I'd had this self-conscious niggling sensation constantly in the foreground, but now it feels more like I'm speaking to myself in my own head. "I kissed her best friend, Janice, one night. Not my fault, really – I mean, we'd been drinking and were at some party in a field and just found ourselves lying next to each other on the grass and… I think I initiated it, but after all these years, who knows? Not that that is the point, I guess. Anyway, Ellie found out through the grapevine at school and ran out of geography in tears. I avoided her for the last two months of school, then went off to college and haven't spoken to her since."
As I'm speaking, I can see Ellie's face clearly, over my shoulder, three rows back in the classroom, the many curtains closed over the years all having been drawn back at once. All the other students in the room have their heads down, but she is looking straight at me through eyes rapidly filling with tears that will fall in the next moment, but time in my memory has come almost to a halt so that I am able to revisit every detail of her before they do. Her blonde fringe, swept to one side and tucked behind one ear; the red outline to her eyes that has already risen up through her eyeliner, floating on the freckles sprinkled across her nose; the gap between her front teeth, cavernous and clearly visible where she is biting her lower lip; the marron and navy striped school tie that disappears into her shirt between her breasts; the whole classroom reflected in the sheen over both eyes. She is gripping her pencil case with enough force to snap any pencils still within.
Maybe she actually does snap one of the pencils as whatever is holding time back gives way with the same suddenness. The instant that her tears finally fall, she stands up so abruptly that her chair clatters over onto the floor. As one, all the heads in the room look up and watch her run from the room. The last thing I hear is the teacher shout after her, then the recollection fades just as the eyes are swinging to me.
"I definitely regret that," I say.
An echo of the uncomfortable chill I felt in my stomach that day has returned. I quickly swallow it.
"Noted," the voice says after a pause, reminding me of their presence. "Continue."
"Right," I say, feeling oddly relieved and nervous at the same. "How many more do you need?"
"Everything?" I say, laughing nervously. "Everything I regret? I don't think I even know everything I regret!"
"Everything that matters." There is a heavy pause, long enough for the words to sink in. "Continue."
I sigh and l lean my head back against the wall.
"Can you spell it?"
"Ah…," the white room is so quiet for a moment that I can actually hear the crumbs being shed by the eraser on the paper. "Noted."
"We were mates all through school. I don't know if I'd have called him my best friend, but he was a good one, part of our little gang of four or five of us. A bit of a band of misfits I guess we were, united by a common love of music, ripped jeans, and long hair.
"We must have all been 15 at the time and at that point in life where we were all trying to be different from everyone else by copying each other." I laugh as I recall the various shades that we dyed our hair. "Me, Vitor, and a couple of others are sitting in his bedroom drinking cheap lager that we've paid someone to get us, talking rubbish, and he decides to share that he's bi. I doubt he actually meant it, but you know… we were going through a very alternative phase at the time and he probably thought it sounded cool. And we were like, cool mate! Nice one! We're totally cool with that! I expect we're all a bit bi, anyway, ain't we?
"Of course, once we were back in school, I told someone, though I don't remember who it was. Not that it matters, I guess. By Period 2, he was getting abuse whispered at him, and by the time the home bell had rung the whole school knew."
It is 1998 again, the day after, and I'm taking a shit in the toilets next to the science labs reading Vitor the bummer in black marker on the door in front of me. Someone has already scribbled drawings of him in various stages of copulation in red pen around it. By the next day, I know, someone will have added his home phone number to the mix.
"His nickname soon after, when he'd tried denying it, was Narnia. He got called that right up until we all left for college.
"But do you know what the worst part was? I blamed it all on someone else, and he and I stayed friends. In fact, we were still in contact until just a few years ago. I even went to his wedding, for fuck's sake… Standing in the pews, clapping and cheering, that lie from over a decade before was still gnawing at me."
As I'm speaking, I can feel my face flushing.
"I got pretty drunk at the reception and came this close," I hold up my almost touching thumb and forefinger for no one to see, "this close, to actually confessing; on his bloody wedding day! Almost 15 years later. Can you believe it?"
"I actually thought it was that important. That's what tequila will do to you." I stop, feeling like a fool afresh. "Maybe it was that important…"
"I haven't seen him since that day. Or any of the others for that matter."
The pencil continues scribbling for a few seconds, then the leaves settle to the ground.
"Do you enjoy your job?" I say, suddenly feeling an urge to talk about anything other than myself. "Or is it all just admin? Write it down then don't give it a second thought?"
For a moment, I feel like they are weighing my question and begin to entertain the possibility of a candid reply. But that notion is quickly dashed. "Continue."
"I could just be making this up; you do realise that?"
"Mm-hmm…," I say, nodding in the same way I imagine they are on the other side. "Continue?"
"I guess I figured moving there would be a fresh start - a fresh start at 35! Ha!" I shake my head at myself. "I don't know that I'd call it a mistake per se – I mean, the job's alright, apartment's fine, and I can say 'Oh, I'm a journalist in London' whenever I bump into someone I used to know – but my life is no better or worse."
When I pause, weighing my words as I flex my sore hand, I notice that the soft scribblings on the other side of the wall have ceased. For a moment, I wonder if they've wandered off, or fallen asleep from utter boredom. But then they breathe in and exhale a question.
"So, you regret moving there?"
"I don't know, to be honest."
"Shall I record it?"
"Might as well," I say, stifling a yawn myself. It feels like I have been speaking for hours. "I certainly can't be sure that I don't regret it.
"But you regret that you are still lonely," they say, and I hear the scratch of the pencil start up again as they jot this statement down.
It takes a beat until their words finally register. I spin round on my naked bottom and face the slot on the wall. "I didn't say that. You're putting words in my mouth."
"Shall I erase it?"
I'm about to say something along the lines of I should think you bloody better but the words dissolve before I can get them out. I sit, mouth hanging open for a second, staring into the black rectangle, poised to speak. Then I lean back on my elbows and look up to the ceiling. "Nah, leave it."
We stay like that for a while: me, contemplating the nothingness above; they, waiting patiently, probably tapping the rubber tip of their pencil on their lower lip. The air is so still that I can feel the flow of my breath swirling about my face and I wonder if they are laying on the floor as I am.
Soon the hardness of the floor is making my elbows sore so I lay fully back and rest my head on my interweaved hands.
"On my way to the office that first day, I spent the whole journey psyching myself up; you know, to walk in all confident, charming, and conversational. Told myself I'd eat lunch with people, join the after-work drinks, make an effort. But everyone, literally, eats lunch at their desk; headphones on, world blocked out. And if they go for drinks, then I've never been invited. In many ways, it's my perfect job," I add, smiling at the irony.
"After a few weeks, I actually took myself out for a drink. Sat at a bar somewhere in Soho knocking them back, sitting in silence except for the briefest snippets of conversation required to order; and even those quickly reduced to simply: 'another?' Nod. At some point, I realised that I was quite drunk and was going to have a problem getting off my stool and walking out on steady legs, so I continued drinking to put that reality off before a desperate urge to piss forced me down. I made it to the toilet ok, but the cool air outside immediately slapped me into a stupor and I began zigzagging along the pavement towards the tube station.
"I don't know exactly where I picked her up. One minute I was bouncing off of shop windows and lampposts, the next we were arm in arm and she was helping me maintain a straight route into a taxi.
"The car cost 30; she cost 50, and also took the remaining notes from my wallet once I'd fallen asleep on her, which I guess was fair enough. Looking back now, I'm pretty sure I didn't manage to stay conscious long enough to do the deed - to consummate the transaction, as it were - but the little spots of memory I do have mean it is, at least, possible, I guess.
"I remember her waking up me in the car and putting my key in the front door when I couldn't manage it. Then I'm in the shower, leaning my head against the cool of the glass door and trying to sober up, before I stumble into the room naked and only half dry. I also remember looking up at her from the bed as she undressed, but that's the last of it until I woke in a world of pain the next day. And all that has come back in pieces over time.
"Believe it or not, she was my first romantic liaison in three years; and remains my most recent." I bite my lip as I think of her again, something I've fought against doing in the time since until now. "Perhaps I should look her up," I add with a wry chuckle to myself.
"To review," says the voice through the slot, and I can hear them flipping back through several pages of notes. "So, you regret not meeting people, getting drunk, wasting money on a taxi, and not remembering whether or not you slept with a prostitute. Correct?
"Yes, I guess so," I say, entertained by the bureaucracy of the moment. "Though I regret getting a prostitute in the first place; not that I can't remember whether or not we had sex."
"So sleeping with her is not a regret?"
"I guess it is; if I did. Are conditional regrets allowed?"
"Then put it down."
A second slot at the base of the wall suddenly flips open and a food tray slides in, coming to rest between my legs centimetres from where the tip of my limp penis is kissing the floor.
"Are we taking a break?"
"If you wish to."
"What time is it?"
The whole time I'm eating, my interviewer stays quiet in the darkness beyond the slot, no doubt listening with some disgust at my slurping and chewing. And his presence – I'm starting to think of him as a he, I realise –is amplifying the silence in the room, the way a candle deepens the darkness around it, so that my machinations resemble a Victorian factory.
When I'm done, I push the tray away and sidle along the floor up to the wall.
"How long have I been here?" I say, trying a different approach. My voice shatters the prolonged quiet and I wince at it.
"29 hours, 32 minutes," he says without hesitation. Then adds after a beat: "33 minutes."
"So, it's Sunday?"
I push my back into the wall, stretching out tight muscles from my neck all the way down my spine. Several joints crack and click and I sigh with momentary relief. "Still a few hours before my boss starts wondering where I am then, I guess."
And then it hits me.
Work aside, who'll even have noticed that I'm gone? If I don't turn up tomorrow, sure, the boss will try calling me. And if I still don't show after a few days? She'll probably keep trying for a while before just assuming I've walked and given up. Then who'd be next? Landlord? The rent's on a standing order, and I've enough money for a few months. Mum? Dead. Dad and I speak twice a year at best. Vitor? Not likely. The list pretty much stops there.
"Is that why I'm here?' I say quickly, before I have a chance to back away from the idea. "Why you chose me?"
The question catches him off guard and it takes a few seconds for him to reply. "Because… it's Sunday?"
"What?" It is my turn to be temporarily thrown by the question. "No… no. Because no one will have noticed that I'm gone."
Then: "Is that a regret?"
When I wake, tucked in and well-rested, it is with the same disorientation as before. This time, though, it takes only a few bleary-eyed blinks for my mind to register the white ceiling and to recall where I am.
I sit up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with my knuckles, resigned to another day of incarceration, and confession. Maybe I'll ask for some chalk to start keeping track of days on one of the walls.
I wonder if black chalk is a thing?
I stretch and yawn, and then I see it: a door, wide open, dead-centre of the wall in front of me.
Well, a doorway to be precise; a door-shaped rectangle filled with darkness. And though my retinas are telling my brain that it is there, rational me doesn't quite believe it. I blink several times and rub my eyes repeatedly, each time expecting it to be gone when I look again, but it stays exactly where it is, tattooed onto the wall.
I can go, I think, and have to repeat it to myself several times. I can go. I've confessed enough. I can bloody go. I. Can. Go.
As I move to get up, I notice a light weight on my legs and see a perfect rectangle-pile of neatly folded clothes sitting on top of the bed covers like the promo shot for a Japanese furniture company.
And not just any clothes, either, but my clothes. Navy chinos, white button-down Oxford shirt, v-neck jumper, all topped with a pair of socks and a pair of boxers. No tie. Pretty much exactly what I would have picked out for a Monday morning. On a hunch, I lean over the edge and peer under the bed; brown leather brogues, just as predicted.
I get up and dress, the sensation of fabric on flesh oddly prominent after so many hours naked. As I'm buttoning up the trousers, I sense things in the pockets. My wallet and my mobile, switched off. Instinctively I go to switch it on, but stop myself, my thumb hovering over the button while I stand there staring at the dark screen. It takes a moment, but I realise that I am scared, genuinely scared to switch it on. In the end, I leave it off and put it back away.
I sit back on the bed to tie my shoes, take a breath, and then make for the doorway.
You often hear stories of old men released from prison who immediately commit another crime in order to be sent back down, or of hostages unwilling to leave their captors after days at gunpoint. And when I reach the doorway, in that moment, the tips of my shoes almost touching the opening, I feel a shadow of the same emotions; not enough to stop me going through, but enough to make me pause on the precipice, hands placed flat on the white wall on either side, and to glance back at the white cube that has been my home for the last two days. I take in the whole space one final time - the bed, the six spotlessly clean squares, the corner where I pissed – then turn and step through into the darkness.
With the unfiltered white light from the room pouring into it from behind me, the space at first seems to be completely dark and it takes several seconds for my eyes to adjust. Slowly though, like tuning a radio, my new surroundings come into focus.
I'm in a narrow, industrial-looking, corridor, with bare concrete walls. I run my hand over one and its surface is gnarled and uneven, like the concrete has been lazily slathered over something underneath. A couple of small pieces of it come off at my touch. I've turned right to face the only other light, which is seeping in weakly from around a corner several metres ahead. I look back over my shoulder and see the corridor stretching off into darkness, so that it appears to never end. Flowing through the narrow route is a faint breeze, cold and damp on my face, with a vague coffee-like hint of burning. There is a faint drip-drip-drip coming from somewhere above.
Fuck it, I think, then start out towards the source of the light. My footsteps rebound off the walls, echoing about me as if I am actually a procession instead of just alone. As I get closer to the corner and the light, I'm becoming increasingly excited and scared in equal measure. I approach like a rookie spy, staying closer and closer to the wall and tiptoeing melodramatically, lifting my knees unnaturally high and carefully setting each foot down. At the corner, I grip the edge and lean slowly forward to peer around, and my eyes suddenly meet those of another man with oversized metal-rimmed glasses watching me over the rim of a cup of coffee. I jump back into the gloom.
Cowering back in the darkness, it takes several seconds for my brain to comprehend the existence of the other person. Waves of panic, relief, paranoia, and joy come quickly, each overlapping the last. And only when they start to ebb do I take a breath then walk around the corner.
The man I saw is sitting at a rectangular table in the centre of another white room larger than my own and kitted out with cupboards, work surfaces, and kitchen appliances, as well as a large fridge. Staring down into the mug cupped in both hands, he looks as if a giant hand has reached back through time and plucked him straight out of the 1980s: oversized beige shirt, sleeves rolled up past the elbow, heavy moustache, sepia tint to his glasses. He resembles western humanity's collective memory of their fathers back then, except that he is decades older, with the hair on his head and lip grey streaked with brown, rather than the other way around. Another man at the table, looking reassuringly contemporary, spooning in mouthfuls of cornflakes, and about them hover several others all in various stages of breakfast preparation.
I take all of this in as I walk in as casually as I can, and I can sense that they have all noticed me, but no one looks my way.
A series of questions scream in my head: What is this? Who are you all? Have we all just been… released? How did we all get here? Where is here? Why are we here? What THE HELL IS GOING ON?!
"Morning," nods a man buttering an under-done slice of toast as I ease between him and the table to enter. He says this without looking up.
"Morning," I mutter and head for the coffee pot.
I fill a white mug with ink-thick black coffee and stir in a teaspoon of sugar, sip, then carry it over to the next worksurface and prepare a bowl of muesli with yoghurt and some dried fruit.
I glance over my shoulder and see that everyone except me is now seated at the table. There's only one space left, next to the first man I saw, facing out into the corridor. I go over and place my bowl and cup down then, just as I'm steeping over the single bench to sit down, I spot a newspaper rack in the corner the way I'd come in, partially hidden by a cupboard. I go over, grab a copy of The Guardian then sit down with my eyes on it rather than the people around me.
It seems I've started a trend as, one by one, the other men each get up and take a paper for themselves. The rack is empty by the time the last man reaches it and he returns, visibly dejected, to concentrate instead on stirring his coffee.
Monday the 25th. I read the day and the date several times to be sure, then progress to the rest of the paper. I can just about manage the headlines - UK To Miss Climate Targets, School Meals Up In Air, Boris In Hot Water – but anything more detailed slips through my mental grasp before I can complete a single sentence. I turn the page and focus instead on the lead image of the prime minister dressed as a chef while sneaking glances at my tablemates.
We're an eclectic bunch and, without a bench on the side of the table facing the entrance, we're squeezed together along three rows of the table. On the left flank, the youngest looks in his early twenties and is dressed in a bright red tracksuit with long blonde hair tied back. His skin is so pale that his fingernails appear blue where they grip a copy of the Daily Mail and I'm sure that, were I sitting next to him, I'd be able to see his veins. His elbows are pulled in tight to his ribs where he is being hemmed in on either side of him by two other men who both look near retirement, one black, one white, both overweight. The black man is in a full business suit with a purple untied tie hanging loosely from his neck like a stole, while the white man has a beard so long that it almost completely obscures the holes and stains covering his t-shirt. The giant on the right flank is probably Australian, judging by his shorts and flip flops, and is taking up more than his fair share of table space, forcing the elderly Asian man on his right to make do with the remaining few centimeters before the edge. Lucky, really, that there wasn't a paper left for him. Somewhere on the dark side of the reincarnation of my 80's father on my own right is another man, though I can make out little more than a bald patch and a wedding ring, the only one on display.
I steal a sidelong glance at the man next to me, the first man I saw. However, he is also attempting to get a look at me at the precise same moment and our gazes meet through his photochromic lens once again. The white spotlights above refract through his thick rims and half conceal his right eye. There is an uncomfortable second while our brains both process the surprise, then we both look away.
"Bloody stupid," he says after staring down at his paper a moment, shaking his head. At first, I think he is referring to me until he adds: "They're always on the take, these politicians."
He holds out the pages of his newspaper toward me to look at, still shaking his head.
"Yup," I say, nodding and glancing at whatever it is he is showing me. I imagine the eyes of everyone else there flicking to look at us while their heads remain still.
"Still, they'll get what's coming to them in March, I expect." He folds up his newspaper and tosses it into the centre of the table.
"Mmhmm," I nod, then spoon in some muesli. Just like with my actual father, I can think of nothing more to say.
The first to break ranks, he scans around the table, studying each of us in turn before placing both palms down on either side of his mug and clearing his throat. "Right then, I'll ask it if no one else is going to: anyone knows what we're doing here?"
The rest of us glance nervously at each other, a few mumbling vaguely or shrugging in reply.
"Look, we've got another hour before they're gonna let us out, and I'd rather not just sit here in silence."
"How you do know?" I ask, and immediately regret it as all eyes swing to me. "That, er… we've got an hour, I mean."
"Because that's what the young gentleman putting the food out said," says the man. He must be able to sense our suspicion though as he adds: "I was the first one in here, wasn't I?"
"I came in just after you mate," says the man I correctly guessed as Australian who, like the rest of us, is probably weighing up if 80s man is a ruse. "And I didn't see no one."
"He was on his way out as I came in. I don't think I was supposed to see him either."
A moment filled only with the clink of spoons on china passes, then the black man in a suit puts down his newspaper and sets his elbows down on the table.
"White room?" he says, looking around at us. His fingers move as if he is trying to shape a ball of air in each hand.
We all nod.
Nods and a few smiles.
He leans back, pushes his spectacles back up his nose, and folds his arms. "And, let me guess, you've got as much idea why you're here as I have?"
Mr. 80s appears about to speak, his mouth opening and half forming a word, before he stops himself and picks up his coffee.
"I know why I'm here."
All eyes turn to the elderly Asian man. His hair is perfectly white and receding, but his skin is unlined. He is still stirring his coffee but is looking at the black man across the table from him.
"Go on then, mate," says the Australian. There is a collective holding off breath.
"I'm dead," says the Asian man, without a hint of humour. His accent is pure East End. "This is the life that follows."
The tension breaks in a chorus of scoffs, laughs, and a whispered "fuck off!"
"You got a better explanation, have ya?" says the Asian man, looking firmly at each of us in turn.
"No mate," says the Australian, pulling his legs up to sit cross-legged on his chair, his knee digging to the older man's ribs. "But we ain't dead."
"No," agrees the black man. "I also do not believe we are all dead."
"Drunk maybe?" chuckles the other older man, his beard jiggling about on his belly.
"I wish," hisses the man I can't see.
"Or drunk." says the black man patiently.
"It's an intervention." It is the young man in the tracksuit speaking. His yellow teeth and general appearance create a sort of McGurk effect so that it takes a moment before I realise that his English most closely resembles the queen's. All eyes shift to him. He shuffles around, making himself some space between the two men on either side before continuing. "A carefully planned circuit breaker to help us confront ourselves."
"Ha!" laughs the man to my right, and a piece of spit flies from his mouth to land on his discarded newspaper. "You think this is AA?"
"He has point." The black man says, releasing both balls of air from his hands.
"This is most certainly carefully planned."
"It's a farse is what it is." The bearded man.
"Death is no farse." The Asian man.
"I really don't think we're dead." Me.
"Right," says the Australian. "And…"
He is cut off by a tannoy system crackling to life somewhere overhead.
Gentlemen, please proceed to the pickup point for return transportation. It is the same voice I spoke with through my walls.
We all look from the ceiling to each other then to the ceiling again.
"Where's that then?" says the Australian. He is clearly addressing us but the speakers crackle again before any of us say anything.
Back down the corridor, right at the T.
We are shuffling single-file along the corridor. The bearded man is in front, walking so slowly that the rest of us have to take baby steps to avoid walking into each other, though no one asks him to speed up. We scuff over the concrete in silence like a line of convicts shackled together at the ankles.
I'm last in line and, unable to see much of where we are going, focus instead on the walls. I try to discern any sign of the multiple rooms that must be here, a hint of a door or anything that could be pulled back to open a flap, but I find none. I can't even remember where my room was. My mind soon drifts off and starts looping the chorus to Wide Open Space while my eyes run over the grey monotony broken only the odd turn of a corner and a single swell-then-fade of light as we pass by another – unpopulated - kitchen unit.
I don't know if I lose track of time or have simply become accustomed to not having any way of tracking it in the first place, but suddenly we have emerged into a large, underground carpark. There are bays here for hundreds of cars stretching outing in front of us but every single one of them is empty, their white outlines converging into a vanishing point well before the distant wall that must be there becomes visible.
The only vehicles occupying the space, basking in the naked overhead lights, are seven buses that look like they were put into storage the instant after they rolled off the assembly line in the 1960s. They are the colour of blood in sunlight, polished to perfection, and without a spot of rust. The only thing that differentiates them is the destinations displayed in revolving yellow lettering on the black signs on the front: Hammersmith, Bristol, Colwyn Bay, Hull, Preston, Chichester, and Seaford. I recognise them all except the last. Every bus is a Number 5.
I stop and, arms folded, look up at the double-decked vehicles, impressed at their size after several days with nothing larger than a bed filling my world. I go to say something along the lines of I guess we should get on them, then? to the other men but the words never make it out as I see that they are already doing just that. Almost instinctively, our group breaks up, each man disappearing down the gaps between the buses to board at the rear for their respective destination. No one says goodbye, although the young man in the red tracksuit gives me an expressionless wave at me through the windows when he has reached the top deck of the Seaford-bound bus.
Soon, I'm the only one left standing there. Several engines fire up in metallic eruptions and I'm suddenly overcome with panic at the thought of being left behind. I break into a jog and climb aboard for Hammersmith. The driver – just discernable at the other end – fires the engine the moment I step on. The whole chassis vibrates violently as he revs on the accelerator, rattling the glass window panes in their steel frames and turning the tops of the seats into blurs of fabric.
A part of me has never gotten over the prepubescent excitement of climbing onto the upper deck to sit at the very front, feet up on the window bar, and I find myself immediately climbing the stairs under the irrepressible influence of my childhood. The bus moves off sending me bouncing off the walls on either side as I ascend. I have to stop and cling onto the handrail while it navigates a series of snaking turns before we start a steady uphill ascent and I'm able to haul myself onwards.
When I emerge, I see that the bus is driving through a seemingly endless tunnel, lit only by the reflections of the vehicle's headlights on the cat's eyes dividing the two lanes. My first thought is that I am the lead bus in the convey but a glance over my shoulder to confirm it shows that the other buses are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps there is more than one tunnel.
When I look back again, I notice that the man from the '80s is sitting at the front.
The deck is glowing softly in its own incandescent lights, which have washed everything amber and created pockets of hot air around themselves. Though the road is smooth, the whole vehicle is still shaking with the effort of the climb and I have to use the headrests as handholds to haul myself towards the front where my breakfast companion is sitting, staring out into the darkness. I ease into the seat on the opposite side so that we are separated by the aisle.
"Well," I say, slapping my knees and looking out through the front window. I have to raise my voice a little to be heard over the rattling commotion. "At least we don't have to walk."
When he doesn't say anything in reply, I look over at him. He is still staring ahead, eyes fixed, looking at everything or nothing, and he could have been a waxwork likeness were it not for the gentle vibration of the hairs in his moustache. With time to take him in, I realise that he is even older than I'd first thought – early sixties, perhaps. Well, either that or he's had a hard life because the spotlight set in the corner above the window in front of us is casting deep shadows in the lines on his face. His cheeks, forehead, and other larger surfaces look more like rugged landscapes at sunset than expanses of skin. He'd make a great album cover.
We stay like this for a good minute – him, away with the fairies, me looking from his profile to the bruising on my hand and back again – until, without warning, he blinks twice and nods.
"Sorry, son." He turns his head and looks at me as if for the first time. "I was miles away."
"Michael," he says, smiling.
"Dave." We maintain eye contact for the second or so it takes to shake hands.
"Well, that was a bloody odd couple of days, wasn't it?"
"That's one way of putting it," I agree.
"I wonder if it's a long way home."
"Any idea where we are?"
"No," he says, smiling. "Not a clue."
We slip into the uncomfortable kinds of silence that follow dead-end small talk. Well, it feels uncomfortable to me at least - like those dusty seconds between the announcement of a hymn mid-sermon and the church organ actually starting up – and I'm thankful for the noise of the bus around us. I drum along on my thighs to a nameless tune as the cat's eyes disappear under us in twos.
Maybe it's the vibrations or the background noise but, before long, I can feel myself getting drowsy. After the experiences of the last few days though, I'm a little unnerved at the prospect of falling asleep.
"This tunnel goes on a bit," I say, rubbing my eyes then turning towards my companion. "We'll be coming out in Calais at this rate."
"I lied," he says after a beat.
"Lied?" I say, confused.
"Mm hmm." He nods, staring down at the backs of his splayed hands in his lap, studying them as if they are not his own. I can't see them clearly in the dim light, but I imagine them to be a well-worn as his face. "Back then, around the table."
"About what?" I ask. "We all barely talked about anything."
"About the white room – my white room."
"How?" I say slowly, watching him carefully.
"I wasn't asked to confess, like you all were." He turns to me. "You were asked to confess, weren't you?"
"I was, yeah."
The man looks back to his hands, turning them over.
"So," I say, swinging my legs into the aisle so that I'm facing him. "Why'd you say were?"
"I… I don't really know. Everyone did and I just er… found myself agreeing along." He turns around so that we are facing each other, knees almost touching. "But I wasn't asked to confess anything."
"So… what were you asked?"
"It's hard to explain, really." We are both now looking down at his hands. "I was asked lots of things, but I guess everything, in some way or another, was about the future."
"Well, you can't confess about that!"
"You know," he begins slowly, "I'm not so sure. I think I confessed that I didn't have one. No, confess is the wrong word – admitted is more like it. I admitted that I didn't have one."
"You're not dying, are you?" I joke, then immediately regret it. I look up and wait for the eruption of emotion, but he doesn't change.
"I'm not dying, but I might as well be. I think that was the point of all this."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"I'm not sure I do either. I think that's why I'm telling you, to try to, if you see what I mean." He looks up then and smiles. "No offense, or anything."
Like alcoholics who've glimpsed the reality of sobriety's reckoning, we relapse into silence. This time though, I can sense that we are both fighting it.
"Keep trying," I say after a while. He looks up and we hold each other's gaze.
"It's hard to put into words. I feel like… like a house in reverse."
"A house is, you know, something to fill up over time, to wear in, to live in, to renovate, to improve with age. If it was whiskey, then the people in it are the casks – you know what I mean?"
He laughs, forcing the lines of his face to bunch up into strata. "I'm not making sense, am I?"
"Look, a house is to be lived in, to be crammed full of junk, of… memories and, and, only then, when you're done with it, do you empty it out and sell it off, once… everyone has gone. Well, I feel like my house is being emptied, dusted, wiped down, and prepared for sale while I'm still living in it. Everyday something else is gone, and soon it'll be – I'll be – just empty rooms."
"What used to be in you… er, your house?" I ask.
"People," he says, sounding like he's starting a list at the end. "And interests, goals, failed projects, memories in development. Life."
"So, where's it all gone?"
"Moved out, sold off, left at door."
The unbroken darkness outside continues to move past the windows. I glance out the front of the bus but there is still no sign of the end.
"Well," I say, turning back to him. "You could just move house."
He reaches over and grips my shoulder, giving me a gentle shake. "Yeah," he smiles, then sits back. "I think I'm beginning to understand that now."
He folds his arms and appraises me. "So, murder? Fraud? Impersonating a celebrity? What was it you had to confess?"
"Nothing that interesting, I'm afraid."
"No need to share, if you don't want to."
"It's not that," I begin, looking for the right words. "They were all meaningless – my confessions - in the grand scheme of things. They matter to me, I guess, but nothing in there to write home about."
"So why were you brought there?" He asks, looking at me over the top of his glasses.
"Because…" I hesitate. A few days before, I'd have stopped. "Because no one would even have noticed that I was gone."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm going to have to come up with a suitable analogy on a par with yours," I say.
"Can you use the house?"
"I dunno…," I say, shaking my head. "I think I'm more like a… an album."
"Yeah, that's even better. I'm more like a record. A demo really, sold after shows. Quite a few copies shifted a few years ago, a fair bit of industry interest but then… slowly, things fizzled out until now I only get played on the odd occasion someone stubbles across me in a box, or I come up in conversation when reminiscing down the pub. You know what I mean?"
"Like a one-hit-wonder?"
"Sort of… except without the hit," I say.
"I think you could have gone with the empty house idea."
"No, it's not really me," I say, shaking my head and smiling at him. "I could have played with the idea of downsizing until you're left living in a box, I guess. But that's a bit rubbish compared to yours."
For the first time in a long time, I start to laugh. Soon, he's laughing too, and we continue like that until he wipes the tears from his eyes
"So, can you put another record on?"
"I think I need to get back in the studio, you know?"
"No, not really."
"To start playing again."
He points out the front window.
Up ahead, a bright semi-circle of pure daylight is rapidly approaching. Within a few seconds, its light is visibly leaking onto the inner surface of the tunnel, allowing us to clearly make out its curvature for the first time. The approaching opening remains a featureless flat luminescence until the moment we emerge. Then, like the flick of a switch, London appears.
The congested chaos of rush hour Hammersmith Broadway to be precise.
The sudden explosion of life is dizzying and I actually have to grip the railing in front of me to stop myself swaying in my seat. Traffic is blurring past in all directions, with cyclists weaving in and out like flies buzzing about a migrating herd. We seamlessly join the flow, which takes on the solid forms of cars, vans, and other buses as it blurs to a stop at a light. A swell of people gushes across the road in front of us to break on the rock that is Hammersmith station to our right. The light from the LED billboard next to my window is almost painful to look at and the glass shielding us from the melee outside does little to dampen the roar of the city.
"How the …?" Michael says, looking over his shoulder searching for the tunnel we were in.
The lights turn green and our bus jolts into motion. Michael can't stop looking back and forth between where we've come from and where we are going to, a look somewhere between shock and amusement pushing deeper crevices into his forehead. He keeps this up until we ease to a halt at a bus shelter on a quieter street behind the station with a metallic scream-then-sigh of the brakes-then-suspension.
"Well I'll be…" he says, gripping the rail in front with both hands in a mirror of my own stance.
"I guess we better get off?"
"Well I'll be…" he repeats as he gets up and moves off towards the stairs.
I follow him on legs that feel shaky. We descend then step off onto a pavement crammed with commuters waiting in line. No one pays us any attention, and they ignore our bus with the same amount of enthusiasm as it pulls off and disappears around a corner. We stand there under a milky-grey sky looking like we've just woken up from a shared coma.
"Well," I say after a while. "It's been a pleasure."
I offer my hand and it hangs in the air a moment while he stares at it. Then, like suddenly remembering a word in a foreign language learned long ago, he takes it and smiles.
"I guess… I'd better be off," I say, waiting for him to let go. "I think it's Monday morning and I think I have a job to go to."
"You're not actually going to go, are you?" He says, finally releasing me. "After the weekend we've just had?"
"No," I say, smiling. "I can't see that happening today."
"I know what you mean." We maintain eye contact and, in that moment, we are alone, everyone and everything else receding out of focus.
"Good to meet you Dave," he says, raising a hand in farewell and taking a step back.
"Good to meet you too."
"Good luck with the music."
"Good luck with the move."
He stands there a moment longer, a vision of the past, incongruous and distinct against the modern city ebbing and flowing about him. Then, with a final smile, he turns and walks off down the crowded pavement, slowly being enveloped by layers and layers of people. And in my mind, I picture the watch on his wrist running backward, the fashions about him regressing, and the image fading from digital clarity to grainy warmth, back to the time of my own album of memories, where I began and where he belongs.
I wait until he is out of sight then I follow him.