Sunday 24 October 2010

This Infernal Waiting

The walls are off-white. That kind of boring, yellowy off-white that someone has decided won’t be as bright, stark and uncomfortable as pure white, and won’t need repainting as often. It would be called something dynamic and meaningless like ‘hazy nova’, ‘buttermilk explosion’ or ‘marigold exultation’. The phrase, ‘won’t show the dirt as much’ was probably mentioned. The surface has the complexion of an acne victim, pockmarked by blu-tack and drawing pin scars, painted over again and again.

The rooms are large, all of identical size, with a row of chairs against the walls, and another row back-to-back in the centre. All the chairs have a fraying, red material covering the cushion; they look comfy too, and they are, for the first five minutes. Each room has two small tables, covered in a selection of magazines, all long out of date. There is never anything there that anyone wants to read; after the first month they just stop looking.

Some rooms have a child who alternates between obnoxious curiosity and inconsolable bawling. Their mother is never anywhere to be found.

In every room there is also an analogue clock. The tick of the clock fills the room, and all the clocks are precisely synchronised: inexorable, inescapable. Next to the clock is a digital alpha-numerical display and every time it changes it emits an intrusive, offensive buzz and everybody checks their ticket compulsively. Everybody. Some of the tickets are worn and tattered but their number never fades and no one ever loses them.

Clyde sighs. Not his number. Again.

He tried swapping tickets when he first got here, bullying tickets with lower numbers out of people, but that didn’t seem to make any difference; when they were in his hand they were always the same number. Not the same ticket, they would be worn or torn in different ways, but the same number nonetheless.

Now, for the first time in what may be ten years – or a hundred – Clyde sees someone he knows. Someone he knew, before this.

Al wanders distractedly into the room. He is holding a mass of papers, scrutinizing something there. It looks like pages from glossy magazines, stitched together with thin, frayed, red thread.

Clyde calls out, “Al? Al? Is that you?”

Al hunches protectively around the papers, jerking away defensively.

“Get back! It’s mine!”

“Al, it’s Clyde. What’s going on?”

Now that he’s closer Clyde can see ink lines drawn on the glossy, printed paper. Square after square after square. There is scribbling in some of the boxes too, but nothing Clyde can make out.


Al looks at him suspiciously, that same look he’d had on his face when Clyde had tried to help him as he died on the cold prison floor. Untrusting, even through the pain.

“It’s a lie, Clyde. The numbers are lies. I seen people turn up after me and leave already.”

“I figured. We did some bad things, Al.”

“But see,” he quickly spreads the pages into a large flat sheet for Clyde to see. “I’m fixin’ to get out. I got a map”

Square after square after square.

(Infernal Passions. John Xero talks writing.)

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