Written by: Guro Grønbakken (during the Creative Writing course Writing fiction 2: advanced narrative).
The walls are red, like the telephone boxes across London. Too red for anyone to look at for too long without going insane. The floor is red. The room is square with empty walls. There is no visible door. No windows. Only a cat flap to send in food once a day and a hole in the floor. A massive lamp in the middle of the high ceiling sheds cold light on two middle aged men. The first one arrived two months ago, the second one two weeks ago.
They’ve both gone slightly crazy by this point.
It was the second one speaking. John. The first one, Charlie, had no thoughts left about the state of colour. The second one had come into the room late that evening fourteen days ago, drunk as hell. He had been at a bar, the one near the railway station where you can see straight over to the gym. John enjoys watching people drag their tired bodies mile after mile on the treadmill, their face pouring with sweat and a look of desperation in their eyes, as if 300 burnt calories will repair everything broken in their life. 100 calories, the boss will start including me in his jokes again; 200 calories, the insurance company will agree to pay for the reparation of the car body; 300 calories, my wife will forgive my affair with the young receptionist.
It had been a long day at work. A pile of paperwork that he hadn’t even managed to work halfway through and a boss with PMS. And of course, a broken coffee machine. Every time the coffee machine broke down, so did the office. Not wanting to drive home to a house that his wife left three years ago, John decided to have a couple of beers at the local pub. There was a football match on the screen. Who was playing? He didn’t know and he didn’t care. John had never understood why people were so crazy about football. 22 men running after a tiny ball filled with air for 90 minutes. Or technically 20 that run and one lazy man on each side of the field, desperate to save the day by throwing themselves after the ball like kittens and puppies. John turned his back to the screen as a silent protest. Sports. Overrated. Too much money in the business. Hundred of million pounds in the pockets of a few lucky bastards bossing a couple of running idiots around. John swallowed his irritation and took a sip of his Kronenbourg. Best damn beer on the market.
A woman in her early forties came into the bar, flirted with the bartender and gazed up at the screen. Then her eyes glanced at him. Scanned him. He blushed, not used to female attention. She gave him a smile and turned away. Ten minutes later she asked if the seat next to him was available. He said yes. She wasn’t bad. Nice enough to look at, good sense of humour. At times a bit dark, but John figured that was the trend nowadays. He had been out of the dating game for a while. His wife had been his high school sweetheart; they had got together when they were both eighteen and ready to conquer the world. John hadn’t been on a proper date in over ten years. And when you haven’t been on a date in ten years or had sex in three, you get to a point where you say yes to whatever is thrown at you. No questions asked.
Her blonde curls danced around her face when she laughed, which she did a lot. Her nails were painted in a bright red and matched her gigantic lips. She must have had some work done on her body. Neither her lips nor her breasts could have been mistaken to be natural. Maybe plastic surgery was her way of finding happiness. Or red, it looked like she loved that colour. John didn’t dare to ask about the surgeries or the colour obsession. He’d learned that sometimes the best thing to do is to simply shut up. His ex-wife had always yelled at him whenever he did or said something she didn’t like.
The two of them switched on getting rounds and two beers became six, eight, ten. Black. Then red.
The colourful walls had stung his eyes when he woke up. His head banged like it hadn’t done since he’d been sixteen.
John had been in the room just long enough to develop regular panic attacks and suicidal thoughts at least two times a day. The other one had gradually turned introvert to the point where he almost never spoke. He would sit in the same position starring at the exact same place until the light was turned off and the two men could rest their eyes. Sometimes it didn’t even seem like he was breathing. John would have to look at Charlie to make sure that he could see the man’s chest raising and lowering in a regular pace. John was terrified of being left alone in this insanity.
The first man could barely remember how he had gotten here; never mind what his life had been before this room. 31 days ago. He had been at a strippers’ club. Trying to cheer up his best mate who’d just got divorced, Charlie bought him lap dances and drinks. Of course he couldn’t let his friend get wasted alone and so he kept up the pace. Ordering gin and whisky, an occasional beer. Vodka shots. Jaeger. Tequila. What were they, twenty years old? It had seemed right at the time. They needed to get drunk, so they ordered tequila. Half an hour later: drunk.
One of the ladies that worked as a stripper and sometimes appeared behind the bar insisted on buying them drinks on the house. She loved seeing people drunk, she said, because people were a lot funnier then. Her low-cut dress revealed two perfectly fine breasts. Her lips were painted red and above the upper lip she had a mole that looked like it had been drawn on. Was she supposed to be Marilyn Monroe? It made sense. A white dress. Innocence. Blonde curls. And that ridiculous mole. Charlie started to see double. The lady now had four boobs, and she insisted on taking Charlie home. Promised she would give him an out-of-this-world experience. What he really needed was a good night sleep. But you don’t say no to a stripper who offers to take you home and ride your love stick, as she had phrased it. But nothing good ever comes out of hooking up with a woman who refers to your dick as a love stick. He should have known that.
When Charlie woke up, he thought he was blind. Everything was so red it was hard to actually see anything. He didn’t have poor sight. He merely wished he had. The first couple of days had melted into one massive headache with no knowledge of time or place. Confusion. The following days hadn’t equipped him with any more facts or answers; it had just made him numb. His body. His brain. Then the other guy had been thrown into the room 14 days after. It had filled Charlie with a glimpse of hope until he realised that this man was even more fucked up than he was.
After 31 days Charlie didn’t have the strength to care anymore. He didn’t care about the room; he didn’t care about the other man who wouldn’t stop talking. He didn’t care whether he was dead or alive. Why should he?
The two men sit beside each other, their backs against the wall. One with his eyes closed. The other one with a flickering gaze. They don’t say anything. They don’t think. Time stands still as it has now for four weeks. As it has for two weeks. John’s fingers feel numb. Then tingling. His pulse increases. He imagines a horse running faster and faster. John’s heart gallops quicker for every second. A veil covers up his eyesight; it makes it hard to see anything. A light tinnitus. He wraps his arms around his cold body and feels the perspiration in the forehead. Cold, yet clammy. John closes his eyes, rests his head against the wall and tries to inhale as much air into his lungs as possible. The room is spinning. Even with his eyes closed, the red walls flashes towards him. The walls are moving closer to each other. Locks him up with no air to breathe, no space for movement. A prisoner. Him against the colour of danger, passion, anger. Blood. Socialism and communism. Or happiness, love.
The cat flap opens. Four pieces of bread on a plate. Cheese and butter. John throws up.
The snow turned into streams of water. Gravel and autumn leaves that had been buried under the white blanket were swept away. It was the first day where the sun functioned its purpose rather than just providing light in a mere couple of hours a day. The first dandelion had made its arrival. Noah sat on the roadside and watched the cars speed past him. Most of them were grey. Black. White. Dull. But they were fast. Noah liked fast. His father’s motorcycle was fast. The vehicle that was now hidden under a tarpaulin in the garage reminded Noah of a giant horse galloping through the woods. It had no restrictions regarding speed, or so it seemed when they raced past cars and buses on the highway. The two of them would drive around the town a couple of times. Over the bridge. Stop for ice cream. Over the bridge again. Home. They never drove anymore.
Noah pulled the flower up by its roots. He stroked the fuzzy flower head against his skin. Soft. Comforting. It was colourful. Majestic. Like a lion’s mane.
He brought the dandelion into the kitchen and put it in the red eggcup as he had seen his mother do so many times. They had one eggcup each. A red one for mum, a blue one for dad, a green one for Noah. His father was still situated in the armchair, gazing at the exact same malformation in the woodwork as he had done when Noah left the house 30 minutes ago.
The next morning the flower didn’t look as colourful or majestic as before. It had dried up. Withered away. The yellow had turned brown. The fuzzy flower head were no longer fuzzy, it didn’t touch his skin with a light, soft touch as it had yesterday, it scraped. Hard. Emotionless.
Now it was dead, just like her.
Sarah could have sworn she heard her name in the honking of the cars, the squealing breaks of the bus or in the unmistakeable ‘Nothing Else Matters’ beat from someone’s headset. People bump into her for every step she takes. Inside her head is swearing. Fucking cunt. Oh bloody hell, why don’t you just fuck me sideways, eh? She doesn’t say anything out loud. If there is one thing her mother taught her as a child that would forever stick to her mind, it has to be not to swear out loud. So she never does.
It’s Monday. Yet another day of miserable people staring up at the grey London sky and wondering whether the sky is more grey than usual or if it’s just a reflection of their mood. Sarah doesn’t see Mondays that way. For her, Monday is just another day. Like Wednesday or Friday. No worse. But no better either.
The traffic is like a jungle. Monday. A quarter to four. The streetlamps look like tall trees, stretching above the people, cars and everything else covering the solid asphalt. The cars are impatient lions, chasing each other through green traffic lights. Sarah feels like a puma. Secretive. A lone hunter. One time she read about how pumas spend most of their adult life alone, coming together only to mate. Sarah has spent most of her adult life alone. 23 years to be exact. Therefore she is a puma. A light breeze grabs a hold of her mocha brown hair, causing it to swirl around in the air and whip her face. She glances at the watch. Four. Fifteen minutes have gone since she thanked her psychologist Alfred for his time, grabbed her coat from the coat stand and closed the door quietly behind her. Searching the crowd of people, Sarah realises that Alfred is the closest to a friend she has. The others are long gone. She has never been much of a social person. If she had to choose between a party and a night cuddled up in bed, thinking and reading, the answer would be simple. Too simple, Sarah has to admit. Like her family, they are all too tired of her. What happened to fun and lively Sarah, they would ask. She had no answer.
Lost in her own thoughts, Sarah doesn’t see the man walking straight towards her. Lost in his documents, he fails to see her as well. They bump into each other, heads first. The man looks up, annoyed and irritated written all over his face. A flushed Sarah raises her head. She hasn’t been this close to a man’s face since Spencer, her on and off boyfriend for two years. Three years ago on a cold October day he had left. Jumped on a train without so much as a goodbye. She had been too much for him, too many thoughts and too many quirks. That was his exact words. That simple.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what is going on with me, I guess I was having a lazy moment and -” The man interrupts her with an irritable “Hmph” sound and rushes on. Sarah always starts talking nonstop whenever she’s nervous. Pathetic, that is how she feels. There they are again, the thoughts. Maybe Spencer had been right all along. She does indeed have many thoughts, but then again, doesn’t everybody?
Sarah heads towards Hyde Park. The atmosphere here always manages to make her feel better. Away from the stress and discomfort that chases central London like a dark shadow. Her usual bench glistens in the sun and for one short second the park looks like it is magical. Dark orange and light red leaves dances in the air, touching the ground only occasionally. Sarah has always wanted to be a ballerina. Her mother paid for lessons when she was six, but stopped after a year because there was little or no progression in Sarah’s dancing, as she had told Mrs Swansea, the dancing instructor. Sarah’s dreams had been thrown in the trash together with the ballerina shoes, and although it was a silly thing, she still hadn’t quite gotten over it. It was the only hobby she had ever had; disregarded of the two weeks she had played the piano, wishing to become the next Beethoven.
She needed to talk to someone. Maybe make a new friend. That would be a nice change. Her introversion had become worse the last year and she knew it. The city had become something unfamiliar and unsafe, the faces she met was blank and it felt as though she were in a horror movie, being the only survival of a catastrophe that turned people into living ghosts. Maybe it was she that was the ghost? How can you ever know for certain if you’re dead or alive? All the questions threaten to suffocate her like the blue and red and yellow wooden scarf her mother used to tuck around her neck. How she had hated that scarf.
“Care to try this bench?” Sarah asks a middle-aged man carrying the Metro under his arm and tries to smile. It fails. He sits down nevertheless.
“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” A typical start to a typical conversation, precisely what Sarah imagines other people on other benches would engage in. The bench is just large enough for two people to sit on without having to be seated on each other’s laps. They talk about the weather as one can, and should, do. It’s getting colder for each day, yes. The colourful leaves make the park look even more spectacular than normal, indeed. They run out of words to explain how the light breeze feels like a cold hand against their cheek, almost like touching a dead person. Or how the black sky that embraces the city so early nowadays, earlier for each day and with only a couple shining stars, reminds them of how magnificently large the universe is. How tiny the earth is and how unimportant their existences are, seen in context of the larger picture that is. So they move on to animals. Flowers. Weddings.
“What is the greatest wedding you’ve been to?” Sarah looks at him while he memorises back to the time when he got married to his wife who left him five years ago, or maybe the day when he walked his youngest daughter down the aisle last summer. Then he asks her, and she lies. She lies because she’s never been to a wedding, but doesn’t want him to know.
“It must be my best friends wedding two years ago, it was so beautiful. All this great food, melon entangled in Parma ham as starter, lobster as main course and home made Panna Cotta for dessert. Oh, and the bride, you should’ve seen her. Never looked prettier.” Sarah imagines this is how someone might describe a wedding, listing all the fancy food that comes to mind first. The man next to her smiles, oblivious of the fact that everything Sarah just said is a big fat lie. Then they talk about funerals, but quickly move on from the depressing conversation they are now carrying out. Of course, this is also a lie; Sarah has only attended one funeral and that was when she was only three. Or was it four? Her grandparents have all passed away the last couple of years, but Sarah hasn’t seen them since she was young. Keeping in mind that this is a typical conversation between two typical human beings sitting on a typical bench on a typical autumn day, Sarah lies. Because typical persons have not lost all contact with their family. The lies come easier as the dialogue continues and Sarah enjoys herself for the first time in many months.
“You know, I first found this bench ten years ago. New in the city and in desperate need for a respite.” Another lie. Sarah grew up in this city, but didn’t find this exact bench before last year, having spent time in this park since she was a little girl. He just nods. Believes in every word because there is no reason why he shouldn’t.
The park is dead quiet when Sarah asks the guy what his favourite colour is. Hers are deep red, the kind of red that appears on your finger when you cut yourself with the kitchen knife or slice yourself on a piece of paper. She tells him this. He doesn’t answer. The last sunbeams go in coverage behind the tallest trees at the far end of the park. The city is suddenly colder. Only the sound of fighting crows fills the air. A couple of leaves are forced to give up their grip and sails towards the ground, ending up in a bunch with other leaves, an aesthetic mess of autumn colours.
On a bench just large enough to fit two persons without them having to be seated on each other’s laps, rests a woman in her forties, wrapping the coat closer around her thin body as the wind disarrays her mocha brown hair. A girl with a blue Moleskin notebook and earplugs take a seat on the other side of the bench.
“What did you say your favourite colour was?”