I wake up, blinking hard against the sky, and the first thing I remember is that my wife cannot forgive me. Never, ever. Then I remind myself I don’t have a wife anymore. Instead, I’m lying at the bottom of a stairwell, thirty concrete steps below street level in a city far from my home. My home is in the past, and I must live in the present.
I’m lying on a soft pile of rubbish bags, and I seem to have got myself covered in muck. It’s all over my shabby green raincoat and the frayed sleeves of my jumper, and there’s a bit on my trousers as well. I sniff it, trying to decide what it is, but I can’t be sure.
How strange I didn’t notice it when I was checking this place out last night. OK, it was already dark by then and I was desperate to find somewhere to doss down after being moved on twice already. But I remember crawling into the rubbish really carefully, prodding the bin bags with my hands and thinking this was the softest and driest bed I was likely to find. Maybe the muck seeped out later on, under pressure from my sleeping body.
I look around for something to wipe my clothes with. There’s nothing, really. If I were a cat, I’d lick the crap off with my tongue, and still be a proud, even fussy creature. But I’m not a cat. I’m a human being.
So, I pull a crumpled-up advertising brochure out of the trash, wet it with dregs from a beer bottle, and start to scrub my jacket vigorously with the damp wad of paper.
Maybe it’s the exercise, or maybe the rising sun, but pretty soon I feel I can probably get by without these dirty clothes—at least until tonight. And tonight is too far away to think about.
I stand up, leaving my raincoat and jumper lying in the garbage, where they look as if they belong anyway. I’m left with a big white T-shirt on, my wrinkled neck and skinny arms bare, which feels just right for the temperature. The T-shirt’s got writing on the front, but I’ve forgotten what the writing says. In fact, I can’t remember where I got this T-shirt, whether someone gave it to me or I stole it or even bought it, long long ago.
I climb the stone steps back up to the street, and start walking along the footpath in no particular direction, just trying to become part of the picture generally. The big picture. Sometimes in magazines you see a photograph of a street full of people, an aerial view. Everyone looks as though they belong, even the blurry ones.
I figure it must be quite early, because although there’s lots of traffic on the road, there’s hardly any pedestrians. Some of the shops haven’t opened yet, unless it’s a Sunday and they aren’t supposed to. So there’s my ?rst task: working out what day it is. It’s good to have something to get on with.
Pretty soon, though, I lose my concentration on this little mission. There’s something wrong with the world today, something that puts me on edge.
It’s to do with the pedestrians. As they pass by me on the footpath, they look at me with extreme suspicion—as if they’re thinking of reporting me to the police, even though I’ve taken my dirty clothes off to avoid offending them. Maybe my being in short sleeves is the problem. Everyone except me seems to be wrapped up in lots of clothes, as though it’s much colder than I think it is. I guess I’ve become a hard man.
I smile, trying to reassure everybody, everybody in the world.
Outside the railway station, I score half a sandwich from a litter bin. I can’t taste much, but from the texture I can tell it’s OK—not slimy or off. Rubbish removal is more regular outside the station than in some other places.
A policeman starts walking towards me, and I run away. In my haste I almost bump into a woman with a pram, and she hunches over her baby as if she’s scared I’m going to fall on it and crush it to death. I get my balance back and apologise; she says “No harm? done,” but then she looks me over and doesn’t seem so sure.
By ten o’clock, I’ve been stopped in the street three times already, by people who say they want to help me. One is a middle-aged lady with a black woollen coat and a red scarf, another is an Asian man who comes running out of a newsagent’s, and one is just a kid. But they aren’t offering me food or a place to sleep. They want to hand me over to the police. Each of them seems to know me, even though I’ve never met them before. They call me by name, and say my wife must be worried about me.
I could try to tell them I don’t have a wife anymore, but it’s easier just to run away. The middle-aged lady is on high heels, and the Asian man can’t leave his shop. The kid sprints after me for a few seconds, but he gives up when I leap across the road.
I can’t figure out why all these people are taking such an interest in me. Until today, everyone would just look right through me as if I didn’t exist. All this time I’ve been the Invisible Man, now suddenly I’m everybody’s long-lost uncle.
I decide it has to be the T-shirt.
I stop in front of a shop window and try to read what the T-shirt says by squinting at my reflection in the glass. I’m not so good at reading backwards, plus there’s a surprising amount of text, about fifteen sentences. But I can read enough to tell that my name is spelled out clearly, as well as the place I used to live, and even a telephone number to call. I look up at my face, my mouth is hanging open. I can’t believe that when I left home I was stupid enough to wear a T-shirt with my ID printed on it in big black letters.
But then I must admit I wasn’t in such a good state of mind when I left home—suicidal, in fact.
I’m much better now.
Now, I don’t care if I live or die.
Things seem to have taken a dangerous turn today, though. All morning, I have to avoid people who act like they’re about to grab me and take me to the police. They read my T-shirt, and then they get that look in their eye.
Pretty soon, the old feelings of being hunted from all sides start to come back. I’m walking with my arms wrapped around my chest, hunched over like a drug addict. The sun has gone away but I’m sweating. People are zipping up their parkas, glancing up at the sky mistrustfully, hurrying to shelter. But even under the threat of rain, some of them still slow down when they see me, and squint at the letters on my chest, trying to read them through the barrier of my arms.
By midday, I’m right back to the state I was in when I first went missing. I have pains in my guts, I feel dizzy, I can’t catch my breath, there are shapes coming at me from everywhere. The sky loses its hold on the rain, starts tossing it down in panic. I’m soaked in seconds, and even though getting soaked means nothing to me, I know I’ll get sick and helpless if I don’t get out of the weather soon.
Another total stranger calls my name through the deluge, and I have to run again. It’s obvious that my life on the streets is over.
So, giving up, I head for the Safehouse.
I’ve never been to the Safehouse before—well, never inside it anyway. I’ve walked past many times, and I know exactly where to find it. It’s on the side of town where all the broken businesses and closed railway stations are, the rusty barbed-wire side of town, where everything waits forever to be turned into something new. The Safehouse is the only building there whose windows have light behind them.
Of course I’ve wondered what goes on inside, I won’t deny that. But I’ve always passed it on the other side of the street, hurried myself on before I could dawdle, pulling myself away as if my own body were a dog on a lead.
Today, I don’t resist. Wet and emaciated and with my name writ large on my chest, I cross the road to the big grey building.
The Safehouse looks like a cross between a warehouse and school, built in the old-fashioned style with acres of stone façade and scores of identical windows, all glowing orange and black. In the geometric centre of the building is a fancy entrance with a motto on its portal. GIB MIR DEINE ARME, it says, in a dull rainbow of wrought iron.
Before I make the final decision, I hang around in front of the building for a while, in case the rain eases off. I walk the entire breadth of the façade, hoping to catch a glimpse of what lies behind, but the gaps between the Safehouse and the adjacent buildings are too narrow. I stretch my neck, trying to see inside one of the windows—well, it feels as if I’m stretching my neck, anyway. I know necks don’t really stretch and we’re the same height no matter what we do. But that doesn’t stop me contorting my chin like an idiot.
Eventually I work up the courage to knock at the door. There’s no doorbell or doorknocker, and in competition with the rain my knuckles sound feeble against the dense wood. From the inside, the pok pok pok of my flesh and bone will probably be mistaken for water down the drain. However, I can’t bring myself to knock again until I’m sure no one has heard me.
I shift my weight from foot to foot while I’m waiting, feeling warm sweat and rainwater suck at the toes inside my shoes. My T-shirt is so drenched that it’s hanging down almost to my knees, and I can read a telephone number that people are supposed to ring if they’ve seen me. I close my eyes and count to ten. Above my head, I hear the squeak of metal against wood.
I look up at the darkening façade, and there, eerily framed in the window nearest to the top of the portal, is a very old woman in a nurse’s uniform. She flinches at the rain and, mindful of her perfectly groomed hair and pastel cottons, stops short of leaning her head out. Instead she looks down at me from where she stands, half-hidden in shadow.
“What can we do for you?” she says, guardedly, raising her voice only slightly above the weather.
I realise I have no answer for her, no words. Instead, I unwrap my arms from my torso, awkwardly revealing the text on my T-shirt. The sodden smock of white fabric clings to my skin as I lean back, blinking against the rain. The old woman reads carefully, her eyes rolling to and fro in their sockets. When she’s finished she reaches out a pale, bone-wristed hand and takes hold of the window latch; without speaking she shuts the dark glass firmly between us and disappears.
Moments later, the massive door creaks open, and I’m in.
Even before the door has shut behind me, the sound of the rain is swallowed up in the gloomy interior hush of old architecture. I step uncertainly across the threshold into silence.
The nurse leads me through a red velvety vestibule lit by a long row of ceiling lamps which seem to be giving out about fifteen watts apiece. There is threadbare carpet underfoot, and complicated wallpaper, cracked and curling at the skirting boards and cornices. As I follow the faintly luminous nurse’s uniform through the amber passageway, I glance sideways at the gilt-framed paintings on the walls: stern old men in grey attire, mummified behind a patina of discoloured varnish like university dons or Victorian industrialists.
On our way to wherever, we pass what appears to be an of?ce; through its window I glimpse filing cabinets and an obese figure hunched over a paper-strewn desk. But the old woman does not pause; if my admission to the Safehouse involves any paperwork it seems I’m not required to ?ll in the forms myself.
Another door opens and I am ushered into a very different space: a large, high-ceilinged dining room so brightly lit by fluorescent tubes that I blink and almost miss my footing. Spacious as a gymnasium and cosy as an underground car park, the Safehouse mess hall welcomes me, whoever I may be. Its faded pink walls, synthetic furniture and scuffed wooden floor glow with reflected light. And, despite its dimensions, it is as warm as anyone could want, with gas heaters galore.
At one end, close to where I have entered, two fat old women in nurses’ uniforms stand behind a canteen counter wreathed in a fog of brothy vapour. They ladle soup into ceramic bowls, scoop flaccid white bread out of damp plastic bags, fetch perfect toast out of antique black machines. One of them looks up at me and smiles for half a second before getting back to her work.
The rest of the hall is littered with a hundred mismatching chairs (junk-shop boxwood and stainless steel) and an assortment of tables, mostly Formica. It is also littered with human beings, a placid, murmuring population of men, women and teenage children—a hundred of them, maybe more. Even at the first glimpse, before I take in anything else, they radiate a powerful aura—an aura of consensual hopelessness. Other than this, they are as mismatched as the furniture, all sizes and shapes, from roly-poly to anorexic thin, from English rose to Jamaica black. Most are already seated, a few are wandering through the room clutching a steaming bowl, searching for somewhere good to sit. Each and every one of them is dressed in a white T-shirt just like mine.
Behind me, a door shuts; the old nurse has left me to fend for myself, as if it should be transparently obvious how things work here. And, in a way, it is. The fists I have clenched in anticipation of danger grow slack as I accept that my arrival has made no impression on the assembled multitude. I am one of them already.
Hesitantly, I step up to the canteen counter. A bearded man with wayward eyebrows and bright blue eyes is already standing there waiting, his elbow leaning on the edge. Though his body is more or less facing me, his gaze is fixed on the old women and the toast they’re buttering for him. So, I take the opportunity to read what the text on his T-shirt says.
Jeffrey disappeared on 7th April 1994
from his work in Leeds. He was driving
his blue Mondeo, registration L562 WFU.
Jeffrey had been unwell for some time and it was
decided he would go to hospital to receive treatment.
He may be seeking work as a gas-fitter.
Jeffrey’s family are extremely worried about him.
His wife says he is a gentle man who loves
his two daughters very much.
“We just want to know how you are,”
she says. “Everything is sorted out now.”
Have you have seen Jeffrey?
If you have any information, please
contact the Missing Persons Helpline.
Jeffrey Annesley reaches out his big gnarly hands and takes hold of a plate of food. No soup, just a small mound of toast. He mumbles a thanks I cannot decipher, and walks away, back to a table he has already claimed.
“What would you like, pet?” says one of the old women behind the canteen counter. She sounds Glaswegian and has a face like an elderly transvestite.
“What is there?” I ask.
“Soup and toast,” she says.
“What sort of soup?”
“Pea and ham.” She glances at my chest, as if to check whether I’m vegetarian. “But I can try to scoop it so as there’s no ham in yours.”
“No, it’s all right, thank you,” I assure her. “Can I have it in a cup?”
She turns to the giant metal pot on the stove, her fat shoulders gyrating as she decants my soup. I notice that the seams of her uniform have been mended several times, with thread that is not quite matching.
“Here you are, pet.”
She hands me an orange-brown stoneware mug, filled with earthy-looking soup I cannot smell.
“Thank you,” I say.
I weave my way through the litter of chairs and tables. Here and there someone glances at me as I pass, but mostly I’m ignored. I take my seat near a young woman who is slumped with her feet up on a table, apparently asleep. On the lap of her mud-stained purple trousers, a plate of toast rises and falls almost imperceptibly. The forward tilt of her head gives her a double chin, even though she is scrawny and small.
I read her T-shirt. It says:
Cathy left her home in Bristol in July 2002
to stay in London. She has run away before
but never for this long. At Christmas 2003,
a girl claiming to be a friend of Cathy’s
rang Cathy’s auntie in Dessborough, Northants,
asking if Cathy could come to visit. This visit
never happened. Cathy’s mother wants her
to know that Cathy’s stepfather is gone now and
that her room is back the way it was.
“I have never stopped loving you,” she says.
“Snoopy and Paddington are next to your
pillow, waiting for you to come home.”
Cathy suffers from epilepsy and may need medicine.
If you have seen her, please call
the Missing Persons Helpline.
Cathy snoozes on, a stray lock of her blonde hair fluttering in the updraft from her breath.
I lean back in my chair and sip at my mug of soup. I taste nothing much, but the porridgy liquid is satisfying in my stomach, filling a vacuum there. I wonder what I will have to do in order to be allowed to stay in the Safehouse, and who I can ask about this. As a conversationalist I have to admit I’m pretty rusty. Apart from asking passers-by for spare change, I haven’t struck up a conversation with anyone for a very long time. How does it work? Do you make some comment about the weather? I glance up at the windows, which are opaque and high above the ground. There is a faint pearlescent glow coming through them, but I can’t tell if it’s still raining out there or shining ?t to burst.
The old woman who escorted me here hasn’t returned to tell me what I’m supposed to do next. Maybe she’ll escort somebody else into the hall at some stage, and I can ask her then. But the canteen ladies are cleaning up, putting the food away. They seem to have reason to believe I’m the last new arrival for the afternoon.
I cradle my soup mug in both my hands, hiding my mouth behind it while I survey the dining hall some more. There is a susurrus of talk but remarkably little for such a large gathering of people. Most just sit, staring blindly ahead of them, mute and listless inside their black-and-white texts. I try to eavesdrop on the ones who are talking, but I barely catch a word: I’m too far away, they have no teeth or are from Newcastle, Cathy Stockton has started snoring.
After about twenty minutes, a grizzled bald man walks over to me and parks himself on the chair nearest mine. He extends a hand across the faux-marble patio table for me to shake. There is no need for introductions. He is Eric James Sween, a former builder whose business had been in financial difficulties before he disappeared from his home in Broxburn, West Lothian, in January 1994.
I wonder, as I shake his surprisingly weak hand, how long ago his wife said she would give anything just to know he was safe. Would she give as much today? The baby daughter she desperately wanted to show him may be experimenting with cigarettes by now.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s a doddle.”
“What is?” I ask him.
“What you have to do here.”
“What do you have to do?”
“A bit of manual labour. Not today: it’s raining too hard. But most days. A cinch.”
The old women seem to have melted away from the canteen, leaving me alone in the dining hall with all these strangers.
“Who runs this place?” I ask Eric James Sween.
“Some sort of society,” he replies, as if sharing information unearthed after years of painstaking research.
“Could be, could be.” He grins. One of his long teeth is brown as a pecan nut. I suspect that if I could read the lower lines of his T-shirt, obscured by the table, there would be a hint of bigger problems than the failure of a business.
Which reminds me:
“No one must know what’s become of me.”
Eric James Sween squints, still smiling, vaguely puzzled. I struggle to make myself absolutely clear.
“The people who run this place… If they’re going to try to… make contact, you know… with…” I leave it there, hoping he’ll understand without me having to name names—although of course one of the names is printed on my breast in big black letters.
Eric James Sween chuckles emphysemally.
“Nobody’s ever gonna see you again,” he assures me. “That’s why you’re here. That’s why they let you in. They can tell you’re ready.”
He is staring at me, his eyes twinkling, his face immobile. I realize that our conversation is over and I wonder if there is something I can do to bring it to a formal conclusion.
“Thank you,” I say.
I sit in my dining room chair for the rest of the afternoon, getting up occasionally to stretch my legs, then returning again to the same chair. No one bothers me. It is bliss not to be moved on, bliss to be left unchallenged. This is all I have wanted every day of my life for as long as I care to remember.
Everyone else in the hall stays more or less where they are, too. They relax, as far as the hard furniture allows, digesting their lunch, biding their time until dinner. Some sleep, their arms hanging down, their fingers trailing the floor. Some use their arms to make little pillows for themselves against the headrest of their chairs, nestling their cheek in the crook of an elbow. Others have their knees drawn up tight against their chin, perched like outsized owls on a padded square of vinyl. A few carry on talking, but by now I have reason to wonder if they are really talking to the people they sit amongst. Their eyes stare into the middle distance, they chew their fingernails, they speak in low desultory voices. Rather than answering their neighbours or being answered, they speak simultaneously, or lapse simultaneously into silence.
Eric James Sween, perhaps the most restless soul of them all, ends up seated in the most crowded part of the room, drumming on his thighs and knees with his fingertips, humming the music that plays inside his head. He hums softly, as if fearful of disturbing anyone, and his fingers patter against his trouser legs without audible effect. A little earlier, he found a handkerchief on the floor and wandered around the room with it, asking various people if it was theirs. Everyone shook their heads or ignored him. For a while I was vaguely curious what he would do with the handkerchief if no one accepted it, but then I lost focus and forgot to watch him. My concentration isn’t so good these days. The next time I noticed him, he was hunched on a chair, empty-handed, drumming away.
Occasionally someone gets up to go to the toilet. I know that’s where they’re going because at one point a hulking arthritic woman announces to herself that she had better have a pee, and I follow her. She walks laboriously, obliging me to take childish mincing steps so as not to overtake her. I notice that on the back of her T-shirt she has a lot of text too, much more than on the front. In fact, there is so much text, in such tiny writing, that her back is almost black with it. I try to read some as I walk behind her, but I can’t manage it. The letters are too small, and the woman is contorting her muscles constantly in an effort to keep her ruined body from pitching over.
She leads me to two adjacent toilet doors on the opposite end of the dining hall from the canteen. Fastened to one door is a picture of a gentleman in a frock coat and top hat; the other has a lady in a long crinoline dress, with a bonnet and parasol. I enter the gentleman toilet. It is bigger than I thought it would be and luridly white, more like a room in an art gallery. Above the washbasins is a faded illustration painted directly onto the wall; it depicts a pair of hands washing each other against a green medicinal cross. REINLICHKEIT, it says underneath.
I select one of a long row of teardrop urinals to stand at. They look ancient and organic, as if they have been fashioned from a huge quantity of melted-down teeth. There are caramel stains on the enamel like streaks of tobacco. Yet the drain-holes are bubbly with disinfectant, showing that they are clean.
I stand for a while at the urinal, giving myself permission to let go of my little reservoir of waste, but nothing happens, so I leave. At least I know how to find it now.
Finally it is time for the evening meal. The two old nurses arrive and start cooking, in the kitchen behind the canteen. A watery miasma emanates from their labours, floating out into the hall, ascending to the ceiling. There is a general murmur of anticipation. I go to the toilet, successfully clear my bowels, and find myself disturbed almost to tears by the softness of the toilet paper. I wash my hands under the sign of the green cross. A dark coffee of grime swirls in the sink, dilutes and gurgles away.
When I return to the dining hall, a queue is forming at the canteen counter. I wonder whether the Safehouse is the sort of set-up where all the really decent food is snatched by the early birds and there’s only scraps and clammy leftovers for the latecomers. I take my place in the queue, even though I’m not particularly hungry. It’s an opportunity to stand close behind someone, trying to read what’s written on their back.
I’m standing behind a young man with bad acne on his neck and head. He has very short hair, like felt, lovingly clipped to avoid any trauma to all the bulbous little eruptions dotting the flesh of his skull. I wonder if a hairdresser charges a great deal more for that: to exercise such care, such restraint, such understanding. What has brought this young man here, if he so recently had a hairdresser who was prepared to handle his head so gently?
On the back of the young man’s T-shirt is an unbelievable amount of text, a dense mass of small print which I can’t imagine to be anything more than a random weave of symbols, a stylish alphabet texture. Starting near the top of his left shoulder, I read as much as I can before my attention wanes:
n:12/5/82, M:pnd(s), F:ai, pM1:30/5/82}gs(!vlegLnd), hf8B, M2:31/5/82}gs(!vlegLsd), @n7, gH, ^MGM:ingm, ¬b, c(T)@m, pMGM3:4/6/82(v[#]penisd++), >@m, ¬X+, Hn>j, pF4:8/12/82,
and so on and on, thousands of letters and numbers right down to his waist. I peek over the young man’s shoulder, at the back of the woman standing in front of him, and then, leaning sharply out from the queue, I glimpse the backs of half a dozen people further on. They’re all the same in principle, but some of them have text that only goes as far down as the middle of their backs, while others have so much that their T-shirts have to be longer, more like smocks or dresses.
My own T-shirt is pretty roomy, come to think of it. Definitely XL. I wonder what’s on it.
There is a man standing behind me, a tall man with thick glasses and hair like grey gorse. I smile at him, in case he’s been reading the back of my T-shirt and knows more than me.
“Lamb tonight,” he says, his magnified bloodshot eyes begging me to leave him be.
I turn and face front again. When my turn comes to be served, I am given a plate of piping-hot lamb stew. The fat nurse has dished it up in such a way that there is a big doughnut-shaped ring of mashed potato all around the edge of the plate, with a puddle of stew enclosed inside it. As she hands it over she smiles wanly, as if admitting she just can’t help being a bit creative with the presentation, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe she’s learned that this is the best way to prevent people spilling stew off their plates on their way back to the tables.
I sit down somewhere and eat the stew and the potato. There’s quite a lot of lamb in the gravy and there’s a few carrots and beans floating about as well. I haven’t had anything this wholesome since my… well, for a long time anyway.
When it’s all over, I stare into space. I’d meant to keep an eye on the others, to ascertain how much food the last ones in the queue got. But I forgot. My memory is not what it was; thoughts and resolutions crumble away like biscuits in a back pocket. The important thing is that no one is moving me on. I could weep with gratitude. Except of course I don’t weep anymore.
After another little while, I become aware that the windows of the Safehouse have turned black. Night has fallen on the outside world. I feel a cold thrill of anxiety, the instinctive dread that comes over you when you realize you’ve foolishly put off the essential business of finding a soft enclave of rubbish or an obscure stairwell until it’s too late. I imagine the bony old nurse coming up to me and saying it’s time for me to go home now, and that the Safehouse opens again at ten o’clock tomorrow. But deep down I know this isn’t going to happen. I’m here to stay.
I sit for another couple of hours, staring at the people but not really seeing them. I also stare at my shoes, mesmerised by the metal eyelets of the laces, the scuffs and grazes on the uppers. I stare at the black windows, the reflection of the fluorescent light on the table nearest me, the damp canteen counter, empty now. I wonder if I should be shamed or even alarmed by my lack of boredom. I hadn’t realised before today how completely I have made my peace with uselessness. Out in the world, I was hunted from sitting-place to sitting-place, never still for more than an hour, often rooted out after a few minutes. In warm shopping malls detectives would lose patience if I loitered too long without buying; on stone steps outside shops people would swing the door against my back and say “Excuse me”. Even at nights, watchmen would shine torches into my face, and unexpected vehicles would cruise close to my huddled body.
With so much outside provocation to keep me moving, I never noticed that inside myself I have, in fact, lost any need for action or purpose. I am content.
I wish my wife could know this.
Eventually a bell rings and people start ?ling out of the dining hall. I look around for Eric James Sween in case he might be making his way over to me to explain what happens now, but he’s already gone. So, I fall into step with the others and allow myself to be herded into a new corridor.
It’s a shabby passage, not very long. On one wall hang naïve paintings of meadows and farm animals, slightly skew-whiff and with incongruous gilt frames. The opposite wall is blank except for a very large laminated board, screwed securely into the plaster well above eye level. It looks like those lists you see in war memorials of soldiers who died between certain dates, or the lists of old boys in ancient universities. At the top, it says:
KEY TO ABBREVIATIONS
There are columns and columns underneath, I’ve square feet of them, starting with:
n: = born
M = mother
F = father
PGM = paternal grandmother
MGM = maternal grandmother
and so on. I dawdle to a standstill under the board, allowing the other people to pass me. I read further down the columns, straining to understand and to remember. The further I read, the more complicated it gets. p means punished, for example, but it only really makes sense when learned in combination with other symbols, like !, meaning an act of physical violence.
I glance ahead. The last few columns are full of fearsome strings of algebra which, if I could decode them, would apparently explain highly complicated things involving social workers and police. Even the most compact-looking formula, ÌFœ>M/-](dn*), unfurls to mean ‘birthday present sent by father, withheld by mother and never mentioned’.
I pull my T-shirt over my head, exposing my naked torso to the draughty corridor. The soft white fabric flows like milk over my fists as I try to get it sorted out. It’s not the front I want to see: I know my name and I don’t want to be reminded who might be worried about me. I hold the back of the T-shirt aloft and check its left shoulder. n:13/4/60, it says. That’s my date of birth, right enough.
After that, it’s hard going. My text makes no sense because I don’t know what I’m looking at, and the key is no help because I can’t see what I’m looking for. I try to tackle it one symbol at a time, hoping that a moment will come when it suddenly all starts falling into place. At least I have the advantage of having had quite a simple childhood.
Unfortunately, just as I’m a couple of lines into my text and am searching for an explanation for pM9, the ninth time my mother punished me, I feel a tap on my naked shoulder and almost jump out of my skin.
I spin around, my T-shirt clutched to my breast like a bath towel. Confronting me in the hollow corridor is the old nurse who admitted me to the Safehouse. My heart beats against my ribs as she glowers straight into me, face into face. Her withered hand remains raised, as if she is about to administer a Catholic blessing, but she merely scratches the air between us with a hovering fingernail.
“You mustn’t take your garment off here,” she warns me, sotto voce.
“I was just trying to see what it says on my back,” I explain.
“Yes, but you mustn’t.” Her eyes, fringed all round with dull silver lashes, glow like sad heirloom brooches. I cannot disobey her.
As I pull my T-shirt over my head, she retreats one small step to avoid my flailing arms. Then, when I’m decent again, she touches me lightly on the elbow, and escorts me along the corridor, away from the KEY TO ABBREVIATIONS board.
“It’s bedtime now,” she says.
I am led into the Safehouse’s sleeping barracks. It’s an even larger space than the dining hall—more like some massive, echoing warehouse whose ceilings must accommodate the comings and goings of forklifts and cranes. It is harshly lit and draughty and smells like a vast kennel, with a faint whiff of chlorinated urine. The ceiling is so high that rafts of fluorescent lights are dangled on long chains, down to where the highest ladder might be able to service them. Each raft contains four strips nestled side by side. Suspended so far above my head, luminous, airborne and still, they remind me of childhood visits to the Natural History Museum — fibreglass dolphins and sharks, dusty with time and grimy at the seams.
I tilt my head back, trying to see beyond these glowing mobiles to the ceiling above. I glimpse the silhouettes of wooden beams and steel pipes, a shadowy Cartesian plane supporting a transparent, or at least translucent, roof.
I feel a prod at my elbow.
“Time for that later,” the old nurse chides me gently, and I walk on.
The floor we tread is an old pool of concrete worn smooth as bone, silent under my feet. The rubber crêpe soles of the old nurse go vrunnik, vrunnik, vrunnik as she walks beside me, leading me deeper in.
I keep my eyes downcast, reluctant to see what this great warehouse is, after all, for. I feel a glimmering constellation of eyes on me, I fancy I can hear the massed sighing of breath.
“This is your bed, up here,” I hear the nurse say, and I have to look where she is pointing.
All along the walls, stacked like pallets of produce, are metal bunk-beds, a surreal Meccano bolted straight into the brickwork. The beds go twelve-high, each compartment a little nest of white sheets and oatmeal-coloured blankets. A few of these beds are empty, but very few. Almost every rectangular nook contains a horizontal human being—man, woman or child, installed like poste restante. Some lie with their backs already turned, their rumpled heads half-buried under bedclothes. But most stare straight at me, blinking and passionless, from all heights and corners of the room.
The old nurse is pointing at a vacant bed, eleven beds off the ground, which I can only get to by climbing an iron ladder up the side of the bunk tower. I look round at her awkwardly, wondering if I can bring myself to tell her that I have a fear of high places.
She purses her thin dry lips in what could almost be a smile as she waves her fingers brusquely upwards.
“No one falls here,” she lets me know. “This is the Safehouse.”
And she turns and walks away, vrunnik vrunnik, vrunnik.
I climb the ladder to my bed. On the way up, I am conscious of my progress being watched by a great many people, and not just from a distance, but at close and intimate range by the inhabitants of each of the ten beds I climb past. Half in shadow, half illuminated by shafts of harsh light, they haul themselves onto their elbows, or merely turn their heads around on the pillow, staring hollow-eyed into my face as I ascend. They stare without self-consciousness, without mercy, reading what they can of the text on my T-shirt, or appraising my body as I haul it upwards only inches from their noses. Yet they stare, too, without any spark of real interest. I am an event, a physical phenomenon, occurring on the rungs of the ladder that is bolted to their own bunk. To ignore me would require a greater fascination with something else, and there is nothing. So, they stare, mute and apathetic, their gaze eyeball-deep.
Man or woman, they have all kept their T-shirts on, like white cotton nightgowns. I glimpse names and ages, and a word or two of history, incomprehensible without the remainder. Their other clothes are bundled up under their pillow—trousers, skirts, socks, even shoes, all to raise the level of the thin cushion in its envelope of stiff white cotton.
I reach the eleventh bunk and crawl in. Under cover of the sheet and blanket, I take off all my clothes except the T-shirt, and arrange them under my pillow like the other people here. I notice that my feet are quite black with dirt, that the flesh of the insides of my knees is scarred with a rash from sleeping too many nights in damp jeans, that my genitals are as small as a child’s.
The sheet is so old and often-mended that I’m afraid of tearing it as I try to make myself comfortable, but the blanket is thick and soft. I wrap it around me, tucked snug around my neck, and am just about to make a decision about whether I’ll pull it right over my head when the barracks falls into darkness.
Relieved to be invisible at last, I venture my head a little way out of my bunk, looking up at the ceiling. It is glass, as I’d thought: huge tessellated panes of tinted glass through which moonlight smoulders, indistinct and poorly defined. The dangling rafts of extinguished fluorescent tubes loom at black intervals in the air, suspended between me and the people on the other side. I stare into the gloom, waiting for my vision to adjust. But as soon as it does, and I begin to see pale shoulders and the feeble candlepower of wakeful eyes, I turn away. I don’t know what I expected to see or what I expected to feel, but these shadowy towers of scaffolding, these tiers of hidden bodies and glow-worm faces, fail to strike awe or pity into my heart. This indifference shames me, or I imagine it ought to, and I make a conscientious attempt to feel something. After some effort, I decide that I feel gratitude, or at least absence of anxiety, owing to us all being here for the night, assigned to our places. Often since going missing I’ve daydreamed of going to prison, but of course the gift of brute shelter is not easy to earn. Whatever crime you may commit, the world still wants you to keep playing the game. Even murderers are visited by their wives and children.
I lay my head back on the pillow, quite carefully, for fear of dislodging my shoes and sending them plummeting to the floor below. The nurse was right, though: I feel no fear of falling myself. The rectangle of steel and wire on which I lie feels as secure as the ground. I relax.
Above me, there sags another mattress held in a metal web, bulging down under the weight of a heavy body. I reach up and touch the mattress and the metal that holds it, very gently, just for something to do. I wouldn’t, for the world, wish to attract the attention of the sleeper above.
I close my eyes, and as my brain begins to shut down I realize that for the first time in months I don’t have to worry about being found.
In the morning, after a blissfully dreamless sleep, I wake to the sound of coughing. From various recesses in the honeycomb of bunks, gruesomely distinctive snorts, hacks and wheezes are flying out. In time, I will come to recognize each cough and associate it with a name and a history. On that first morning, I know nothing.
I lean over the side of my bed and look down. On the floor far below, lit up brilliantly by the sunlight shining down through the transparent ceiling, is a silvery pool of urine. The metal towers of sleeping berths are mirrored in it; I scan our reflections trying to find myself, but can’t tell the difference between all the tiny dishevelled faces. I raise one hand, to wave into the glowing pool, to clinch which one is me. Several hands—no, half a dozen—wave back at me.
I am no longer missing.