The nights are the worst. Lying here, shuttered into the automatic darkness, it is the only time I know I am lonely. Twisting about in a bed grown tacky, sheets peeling off me like second skins, the night-time hours are slow and gruelling, fat with fantasies and corners and fear. The door casts a long, imposing shadow, impossible in such complete absence of light. Somehow, in the silent darkness, that exit becomes larger, more real than the day. It gleams in the light that doesn’t catch it, and asks questions I can only respond to with bluster.
And bluster is a daytime thing.
Nowadays I know I can do nothing, other than simply wait it out. I play games with myself, word games, number games, counting to infinity, or composing some rhyme. Sometimes I paint a mental canvas, fill it with as much detail as I can remember of the world I knew years ago, the sea in the sunshine, or the girl who was my wife. Or I think up another episode of Milly and May, though it loses its sparkle a bit, on your own. But the doorway continues to grow in the night time, when there isn’t enough reality to convince me it’s fake. Several times I’ve actually done it, crossed the room, poised and sweating, fingers slick on the handle, shoulder hard against the wood. I’ve woken up, found myself there, sleep deprived and barely conscious, just in time to prevent myself opening up and stepping out.
We never talk about the night. We don’t remember the last time we slept. We don’t discuss the way the smell changes. The way the fear in the air becomes fetid at night, viscous and cloying, filling our nostrils until we gasp for our life breath and choke in our rooms. I once spent what must have been several hours searching for something decomposing, because nothing else could explain the intensity of that smell. I was still searching when the light clicked on to blind me, and each of us separately blinked and blessed those bright blue strips which, in this place, are day.
Thank goodness, I thought, there’s nothing in here but me.
It’s difficult to tell, but I think it’s been years. Long enough for each breeze block to become infused with it, for dark imaginings to hang in the air, to run with the water from each rusty tap. To echo through the pipes with the voices of our neighbours, and hurl themselves, like mad spirits, against the corners of our cells.
They don’t call it that of course.
At first they told us it was some kind of upgrade, when they were dispensing with the old system, the one they called ‘Jail’. A sort of lighter touch penalty, a lucky break for the misfits and idiots, the ones who weren’t dangerous, the loveable rogues. And they called it ‘The Honeycomb’. A mass of little concrete boxes tessellating together with silent efficiency. In perfect geometric symmetry.
At least, that’s what we think it looks like. None of us have ever actually seen it. You can’t look at a thing you’re standing inside.
I get up with the blue light, splash my face in the basin, scrub before breakfast appears in my hatch. Pointless, perhaps, when no one can see me, but I like to spend time on a meticulous shave. It makes sense to keep order. I smooth down my bed when I rise and plump up the pillows. When breakfast arrives I set it out on the table, remove each item carefully from its hard plastic tray. I pat my mouth with my napkin, mop up any crumbs. I like to eat the toast while it’s hot, and the cereal after. I like to linger, a little, over coffee.
Through the pipes, the cell is filled with morning voices, everyone relieved that the night is over, and an element of course, of necessary reassurance. Everybody has to say something at breakfast, a comment on the toast or a quip, or a cough. Breakfast chat is a carefully nonchalant roll call.
And everyone is always here.
I generally listen quietly, after a genial ‘Good Morning’, and let the chatter wash over me and bounce off the walls. Peter and Steven, Jimmy and Paul. I know we all pride ourselves on recognising our voices, recalling the names of the friends that we have never seen. It’s a test, of course, these morning pleasantries, to make sure that everyone else is still here. And I know, too, that for all of us, after the last voice adds its comment, the orange juice tastes a little bitter, relief and disappointment curdling into the milk.
We each have an individual, hexagonal cell. There’s a bed and a toilet, a hatch for food and a door. It’s pretty good really. The food’s not bad and the temperature’s regulated. We can chat through the hatches and the pipes and the vents, but, apart from that, it’s nice and quiet. It’s dark in the night time and bright in the day. It could be incarceration. It could be a hotel room. Except that it heaves with indecision; it physically pulses, walls and floor, with heavy, terrifying uncertainty.
We tend to pass the day in chatter. Sometimes trading insults, a rude comradery, or we make up the next episode of Milly and May. It’s a sort of verbal soap opera, jointly created, which began as someone’s joke and then somehow took off. It stars two girls of predictable height, weight and breast size, storylines tending largely, if I’m honest, towards the more sexual. I suppose you could say we’ve got quite into it.
Sometimes the chatter is a little hysterical. We find things a lot funnier than they naturally are. We believe more than we should in the exploits of Milly, we care unnecessarily deeply about May. We talk about anything, bowel motions, breakfast, anything to cover a hole in the noise. Anything to distract from the inevitable reality, a heap of boxed up, sweat-soaked animals, staring, staring, at the door.
Lunch arrives, promptly, at what I imagine is noon. It’s pretty good actually, mashed potato or pizza, by turns indulgent and healthy, we live fairly well. I eat at my table again, chew slowly, wipe off the cutlery and clear up the plates. Lunch is a meal we eat in silence because talk, after lunch, is not quite so much fun. Afternoon is a blur of black speculation. Theories and fantasies, nightmares and dark faiths. The memory of last night and the anticipation of the next one become larger and stronger as the hours draw on. After lunch there is not so much time before dinner. And dinner is swiftly followed by night.
A way out. Just imagine it. We are none of us stupid. We really could do it, at least in theory. We could plunge into that long forgotten landscape, walk through tickling grasses, feel the world brush against us. We could hear the crackle of salt water on our dried-out skin, the giggle of winged creatures far above in the trees.
That smooth, wooden oblong with a shiny chrome handle. We could simply walk out of it, they said, if we liked. If we wanted, we could grip that handle, feel the cold of the metal beneath our palms. We could press down on it and swing the whole thing smoothly outwards, flood our cells with real light, taste the rain on our tongue.
Because, so they told us, they have unlocked the doors.
We are free. Free. To eat bright, fresh foods grown in fields under rain clouds. To embrace our wives. To try to recognise our children.
The trouble is, none of us knows what’s out there.
After the lunch remnants disappear into the hatches, after our separate meals in our separate cells, conversation gradually grows. I don’t listen initially, I keep myself busy. I wash my face with cold water, brush my teeth, blow my nose. Sometimes, if the duvet has wrinkled, I shake the sheets out, remake the bed. But I can’t put it off forever. Conversation, in the afternoon, is darker, like a spreading mould, an infestation of something small and dangerous, something that none of us can actually see. We cram our small worlds with dark tales and black warnings, trickling down the walls like condensation, oozing through floor tiles like the fear in our glands.
Some say the honeycomb is a gigantic tower, built cell upon cell to dizzying heights, a skyscraper of individual, fear-saturated worlds. You might, if you were very lucky, have a cell on the bottom. You might open that door, that unlocked door, and you might walk out onto solid ground, feel soil in your footsteps and stones between your toes.
Or you might not. You might step out into nothingness and plummet to your death, a red smear on verdant landscape, a botched piece of art.
Others say it’s more subtle. That the world outside is free for the taking, but burned out and destroyed. A mist of noxious gases and corpses, stiffened and bloodied, mid scream. That the sky and the trees and the oceans we remember have been long since removed, dried up and diseased. That the sea is a dry bed full of old glass and dead moss. That anyone who finally turned that handle, would step outside into a world like a shriveled tortoise, rotting and empty, and burned into ash.
And once you step out, you can’t step back.
Why else would they do it? Why unlock the doors?
Our voices change a lot in the late afternoon. Though we have no reason to stay quiet, we tend, somehow, to drop to whispers. Our words become guttural, spit spattered and hissing. We whisper until we are stilted and stifled, treading a routine made rotten with fear.
Some of us think it’s all a trick. That the door wouldn’t open if we tried it. That somewhere in these cells are tiny cameras. That the whole thing is a damaged, psychological game.
Or that the doors open into an execution chamber. That the unfortunate emergent would walk into a horror of white tiles and bright lights, a gleaming chair, a syringe. A surround of glass pressed with eager faces. Old enemies, wronged loved ones, the people we stole from. Jeers or applause, excited cheering, the wry smile of the doctor. Judgement day.
When dinner arrives it always makes me jump. I try to eat on the bed, it’s an attempt to debug it. To associate with it, something nice. I think all it does is prolong that cold night. I wash up at the end, which is unnecessary really. I never wash up after lunch or breakfast. But I do it, fastidiously in my sink after dinner.
Some believe we’re all dead. That’s one of the chilliest, saved for the moments that are closest to dark. We are dead but don’t realise it, and the moment we leave here decay will swoop in on us, we will be devoured by the worms that have lived in our souls. It’s the furthest of our collective flights of fancy, and as the night time descends upon us, it seems more realistic than Milly and May.
I like to remake the bed once more, before I get into it. I like to get ready slowly, brush and floss, wash my face. We all potter around sombrely, in those last five minutes, when we sense rather than know that the light leaves us soon. We plump the pillows, shake out the duvet. Smooth every wrinkle from the bed sheet before we get in. We have, I know, a mutual understanding. That we must be in bed before that blue light cuts out. We lie down, we get ready. We don’t say goodnight.
None of us have tried the doors yet.