The room is small. The walls are thick concrete, with flaking plaster that coats the very air. The air is thick, like the walls, and every breath is laboured.
There is a very small window, barred crossways with wood. The window is just above eye level. Outside, there is always light. It is impossible to tell whether, beyond the window, there is the outside world. It may well be another corridor inside the building. After a while, the light becomes so blazingly familiar, such a constant persecution, that it cannot be determined whether or not it is electric or natural light. The sun has become a ball of electricity, and the earth is lit by small, bare bulbs, hanging on their wire and naked of shade.
The prisoner is calm. He does not want to leave, and in fact, he has become too terrified to even go near the window. Beyond the window is the unknown.
The bed is a mattress on the floor, with a small blanket, not quite long enough for the prisoner. Every night he has to sleep curled up in some apish foetal position, in order to conserve warmth. It may be night or it may be day when he sleeps, he has lost all track of time.
There is a seemingly bottomless hole in the corner of the room, bracketed by bricks, which serves as a lavatory. The destination of the hole is unknown.
Beyond this, there is an old, roughly-hewn wooden stool, and a stone table, more of a ledge, that juts out from the wall.
There is a hatch above the table, which jerks from time to time as food and water are delivered. There was a time when the prisoner wondered how he came to be here, and why there is no door. The prisoner has long since ceased to wonder.
He has few thoughts. There is a dark cloud in his mind that he believes comes from his life before this place. He does not recall anything with any clarity, nor does he know exactly how long he has been here.
More memories surface, bubbling up from the ooze, as the days go by. He feels that something is just around the corner, some great revelation, but he remains calm.
The prisoner plays Patience. He has a pack of cards. Even as he eats his bread, or watery fish soup, and drinks his water, he plays Patience, he considers his next move. He has never lost a game. The cards mean everything to him, he does not know how they came into his possession. They are old, curled at the corners and edges. They depict black and white images of celebrities from “the Golden Age of Hollywood”.
From these cards some memories come back to him, they do not seem that they are his own. He remembers seeing Carol Lombard star opposite William Powell in “My Man Godfrey”. He remembers the plot. He remembers some lines as if they were being spoken to him here and now, as if he were speaking them himself. He remembers laughing. He does not remember when or where he saw the film, or with whom. Maybe he watched it alone.
There is an image of James Mason. He recalls the distinctive voice but he cannot recall any pictures in which he starred. He knows he has seen several, but the names, the details, everything swirls in front of him like a nest of invisible snakes in some bizarre trauma dream.
The prisoner is playing again now, the cards are laid out before him and he feels calm and thoughtless. He no longer thinks in terms of red and black cards, of suits, of numbers or of Jack-Queen-King-Ace. He has played Patience for so long, and he is so attuned to the cards, that he recognises the sequences through the celebrities portrayed on the cards. He does not need to look for a black Seven to place under his Eight of Hearts. He simply knows that, with everything in its right place, either Mae West or James Cagney will need to be placed below Humphrey Bogart.
The cards are at his beck and call, and they are constantly revealed in the correct manner, in a process which causes him no pain or discomfort, no panic and no concern. The cards are his life, they are his family and his friends, his work, his pleasure, his rest and his play, his salvation. The cards are his Gods.
The prisoner considers the cards laid out in front of him and does not stroke his beard, nor does he lean forward or back. He sits still, with his back erect, as always, and moves only his eyes as he looks at the game.
He moves a chain of three cards to sit below Clark Gable, revealing Myrna Loy, who had been hidden behind them. Myrna Loy moves to join Rudolf Valentino above the other cards. Rudolf Valentino is the Ace of Hearts. He has made each conceivable move so many times that they do not appear new to him.
The prisoner has eaten his meal. He does not know if the meals come at regular times. Sometimes he is served bread with water, sometimes a very watery, translucent fish soup. There is no system. He once tried to work out the system, before he realised that there is none.
The prisoner is unsure as to whether or not he is even in a prison. He does not know the nature of his abode, nor does he know the reason for his being here, nor how long he has been here. He sometimes tries to calculate how long it has been, but he cannot even begin to imagine it. The words “year”, “month”, “week”, “day”, “hour”, “minute”, “second”, have ceased to have meaning. He cannot define them, and he cannot recall their meaning, their origin. Words are useless to the prisoner. The words he knows are the ones that are printed on the back of each one of the cards. They are
“The Golden Age of Hollywood
And these are the only words there are. There is nothing else.
The prisoner does not know his age. He does not know how many games of Patience he has played since he arrived. As each game ends, he gathers up the cards, shuffles them methodically, using the same sequence of shakes and cuts each time, and prepares another game. When he tires, he sleeps. The prisoner is not often tired.
The cards feel more familiar than his own skin. As he places them calmly into place, his mind is comfortingly empty. There is a distant memory of fire. He can remember, vaguely, the notion of fire. But he cannot quite recall the sensation, the image, the smell. What comes to mind to illustrate the recollection is even more distant, the memory of an animated paper fire from a children’s television programme, against a pastel background. It intermingles with the most distant memories of a cartoon superhero. The memories are like dreams, half-remembered upon waking, lingering just beyond the edge of consciousness. The prisoner is never sure that the memories are his own.
The prisoner has not heard a noise from outside the cell that he can recall. Even the hatch through which his food comes seems silent. He barely makes a sound at Patience. Sometimes he wonders if he will ever hear again.
Lauren Bacall is moved to the same chain as Errol Flynn. The prisoner does not see his hands as he lays the cards down, his eyes always fixed on the sequence.
The light that enters through the window is constant, and never flickers. The prisoner thinks he used to have a twitch, a slight tic that affected part of his face and was triggered by flickering lights. He recalls, somehow and suddenly very vividly, a spike of clarity piercing the fog, a train journey. He was seated by the window. The seats were blue. He was reading… The season was winter. The flicker of sunlight through the trees made him twitch several times.
The prisoner, from time to time, feels strong and clear recollections bubble up. He is never sure how he feels about these things. At times, he searches in vain for further memories, a map of his past. At times, he feels it better to eradicate all thought from his mind. He needs only to play the game.
The prisoner does not know his age.
The cards are smooth from use. He reveals the next three cards, the first of which is Marlene Dietrich. He looks deep into her eyes and is almost reminded of music, but again, the memory is too vague for him to grasp. For some reason he remembers Christmas. The notion of Christmas. It is a strange thing to think about when he has not remembered it for so long. He has no memories of Christmas, but the image, the concept, he can almost feel the very scents and smells of Christmas ebbing and flowing beneath his nostrils. Involuntarily, and un-noticed, his nostrils flare.
There is no place for Marlene Dietrich in the current picture, and he moves the next cards to the back of the pile, prepares to pick out three more.
The movements of the prisoner are worn, practised. He has become a machine.
The machine stops.
The prisoner does not move. He has not heard a voice for so long that he is not sure whether this is inside, or outside, his mind.
Brother… he thinks of that name. There is a weight of meaning there. The prison, this lack of memory, is a boulder rolled in front of the tomb. Within that tomb is a shadow, some God of memory perched on an infernal throne.
The prisoner shivers. For the first time in more time than he can imagine, he notices his hands. They are shaking. The prisoner returns to his game.
And, almost as soon as the word, the sound, the meaning, is free and floating around the world, the prisoner realises that he has spoken the name himself. His lips, his strange voice that springs as if from the mouth of another, has conjured up this word. The prisoner begins to feel afraid. This word, this name, means more to him than he can understand.
The prisoner, without knowing, has grit his teeth, and is grasping the next three cards so tightly in his hand, that his fingers, pale and thin at the best of times, are losing even the final, desperate drops of colour.
The prisoner pauses, breathes. He continues with the game. He places David Niven in a chain beneath Ingrid Bergman.
Again, he remembers the fire, but the memories, this time, are more vivid. The fire is contrasted against night time. The sky is dark. He is cold. There is something just beyond his field of vision, but somehow he knows that he could see it if he so desired. He has seen it. And he does not want to see anything ever again.
The prisoner has started to grind his teeth. The feeling is one that is familiar to him in an indescribable sense – it is pre-historic. It is ingrained so deeply into his consciousness that, as soon as the rows of enamel-coated teeth begin to grind and gnaw, the concept of their ever performing any other action, seems impossibly abnormal and strange.
He has spoken consciously now, the prisoner, searching for a memory that he does not want to find. What is freedom? What is this place? Strange concepts. The prisoner remembers two things, two impressions, both so vague as to be meaningless but equally, in themselves, out of context, as images and senses without a story, so vivid that he recoils.
The first memory is vomiting. The spatter of vomit onto concrete at night. Distant laughter, blurred vision. A sense of sneering, smiling, youthful life and energy.
The second memory is smoke. Something distant links it to the memory of fire, but the prisoner’s mind immediately corrects that assumption, severs that connection without a thought. Smoke in a room. Cigarettes. The prisoner tries hard to remember the taste of cigarettes, of tobacco. He cannot remember the brand he used to smoke, nor it’s flavour, at one time so distinctive. He cannot remember the taste of any tobacco. The prisoner has no desires and no cravings. And yet in spite of this, suddenly, he desires a cigarette.
Muscles the prisoner has not noticed in an age, begin to make themselves felt. Not pronounced muscles, but parts of him nonetheless. The machine is. The prisoner begins to feel a veil lifting.
The cards are placed onto the deck and the prisoner stands up, begins to pace quickly about the room. The room is small. As the prisoner walks, his legs begin to ache, to stiffen and slowly, as dust falls from a long-discarded book to reveal the colour beneath, the prisoner begins to feel more and more like a being, less and less like a machine. He breathes deeply, and although the feeling is a restricted one, given the plaster in the air, he feels freer, a thought which at once terrifies and exhilarates him. The prisoner has forgotten how to feel.
More recollections – a face. The visage of someone, a face he recalls better than his own. The prisoner cannot recall his face, what he looks like. But this face is burned into his psyche. A pale, equine face with a strong jaw line. Short, dark hair. Eyes that mock but at the same time twinkle mischievously. Eyes that see into his soul, slashing and burning all within, and yet and at the same time, exchanging knowing glances and private jokes that do not even need to be spoken, such is the connection between these two men. The constituent parts of the image, the eyes, the hair, the grin, all fall into place and suddenly the face is there, stunning the prisoner, making him jump back with fright, opening his mouth in mute horror, such is the unexpected vividness of the image that slams into his mind, branding itself, indelibly now, into his thoughts, unforgettable and incapable of being ignored.
The prisoner has never felt so certain, so concrete. Only a handful of vague and misty recollections are coming to him, but they are forcing open floodgates, he is sure.
He remembers the face again, even more clearly. “Brother…” he recalls late evenings drinking alcohol, he recalls the endless hours spent together at the school – he remembers the school! – and the months and years thereafter.
The prisoner met the man he knew, and who knew him, as “brother”, when he was eleven, at the school. They started together, playing football in the Quadrangle, laughing during lessons and being separated, playing games in the evenings and at the weekends. By the age of thirteen they had begun to court young ladies, with varying levels of success. Memories, some as crystal clear as logic and some as vague and misty as clouds, of girls, later women, of these two men acting as each other’s confidantes, comrades, two boys fighting to live in a world that would always be unfamiliar. And somehow, they always managed to stick together. Juvenile arguments sometimes made their friendship into a death-grip, but there was always an unspoken solidarity.
He recalls hasty shared cigarettes at tender ages, behind the school, the first touch of alcohol, that sweet and alien numbness, by a hasty barbecue at the age of fourteen. They aged together. He recalls the stone fire escape tower at the back of their school – it led out of the gantry of the school hall, with steps coming down to a poorly-nurtured concrete and grass promenade. For one glorious summer they had turned it into their second home, with incense sticks and a supply of confectionery and cheap alcohol. A visiting friend had even supplied some fabric to use as curtains to cover the entrance. When term resumed, the place was cleared out by the caretaker, and they were not permitted to return.
Drinking too much, and helping each other home, supporting each other’s weight like soldiers returning, injured, from a war. And somehow everything was so real, so important, so profound. The prisoner finds it difficult to see this reality, this sheer, undeniable reality of living, as being his own. Were it not for the forcefulness of the memories that now come back, were it not for the genuine feelings of fear, confusion and happiness that they inspire within his very soul, he would feel as a spectator, peering cautiously into the window of someone else’s life.
Fallouts, fist fights. The time that both men desired the same woman so cruelly, so desperately that they fell to striking each other and then, bloodied, bruised, with their shirts torn and their faces tired, the woman in question passed them by, arm in arm with her new love. Both men had laughed at the irony, the foolishness of it all.
The years rolled by. Camaraderie made steel by shared experience. Both men taking chances and making sacrifices for each other. Shared enterprises, a passion for music and a passion for art. The prisoner suddenly recalls, and looks down at one of his hands. There is a faint, but definitely visible scar running diagonally across his palm. He remembers a spring evening, a contract of brotherhood. He remembers their becoming blood brothers by each cutting one of their palms and the two of them clasping their hands together – the sudden shock of pain, both gritting their teeth so as to save face, and the sense of togetherness, achievement and almost numinousness that the experience gave them.
The memory of fire returns, and the prisoner feels somewhat ominous. He looks at the light coming in. He feels that, were that light to flicker, the very substance of his soul would quiver with fear and uncertainty. This is no exaggeration. The prisoner knows this feeling all too well, this peculiar, paralysing fear and longing for shelter, for unconsciousness. He knows this feeling well, but after all these years in this room, it is antiquated, it almost needs dusting from lack of use. But it is sharp enough.
The prisoner looks about him with a quick movement, his neck crunching from the unfamiliar jolt. The prisoner has become accustomed to moving slowly.
He freezes as he convinces himself that, in the plaster he can see the silhouette of this brother. This thought only serves to make him feel even more distressed, and his lips part involuntarily as he grinds his teeth.
The silhouette moves, the prisoner blinks, and it is gone, but the roaring in his head remains – there is wind alongside the fire, and the fire is spreading. His memory nudges him, speaking vaguely of ruined vehicles, a large expanse of open ground that is licked and torn by the flames. The sky is dark. He questions himself, from where has this memory emerged, so unfamiliar and yet so clear? The fire could be in the room with him. Beads of sweat form on his brow as if in response to the proximity of naked, vivid, living fire.
The prisoner can feel his mouth running dry, and looks about him. The memory is beginning to play out in front of his eyes, and he instinctively flexes, walks about, his face creasing up as if he is about to laugh, cry, or vomit.
The image of fire, of something just beyond his field of vision, is making him twitch, it is as if it wants to reveal itself to him and he cannot bear to look.
“Brother!” – this time it comes suddenly, a stabbing shout and the prisoner realises, again, that he has spoken. He clutches his shoulders with his hands, his arms crossing his chest as if he were in a coffin, and he grits his teeth, baring them in an animal grimace as he fights to hold back the memories that are flooding back into his head. His whole frame is starting to ache with the shock of sudden movement and mental tension.
The prisoner recalls further. The prisoner has two brothers.
He remembers, as an eleven year old boy, sitting down in an empty flat with his mother (an image, a concept so unfamiliar, youth… and his mother? That most primal of relationships seems so distant in the mists) before they moved away, and being told that he had had a twin brother.
The prisoner had lain wrongly in the womb. And because of this, his twin brother had died at birth.
The prisoner is fretting, is pacing, is almost tripping over his stiff legs, strange and alien as they feel from lack of use. He is confused, and frightened, such feelings attacking him more sharply and with more ferocity, coming as they do from nowhere, breaking into his eternal silence and forcing his long-numbed mind into action, whirring and clicking and straining to deal with the emotion. The prisoner tries to stop, to moisten his lips with an already parched tongue, to calm himself, and yet his mind continues to hum and buzz, outside of his control. Numbers dance before him in different fonts and at such a speed that they dazzle him, he does not know why. Snippets of his life return to him, and impressions, concepts on which he cannot fix or focus, and he becomes distressed, as if his mind were so much pickled cabbage, falling away from the over-filled spoon.
They had grown up together. As young men, eighteen, upon finishing their educations they were inducted into the militia for their mandatory period of national service. They trained, finding the physical work tough but the intelligence tests straightforward. When one became a victim for beatings, the other would throw his body in the way of rifle-butts to save his brother, or at least to share his pain. The prisoner, hopelessly poignantly, remembers being beaten until his vision was blurred, but seeing his brother, already battered, fling himself at another man to stop him from attacking, and as a consequence meeting with a broken collarbone and a fortnight of solitary confinement.
The prisoner remembers the foul night they were both made to stand in the parade ground square, holding their rifles above their heads, in monsoon weather, for a whole night. Every time they collapsed, the Drill Sergeant and two of the platoon would race out and kick and beat them, dragging them up. The prisoner had wanted to die.
And yet, eventually, they had passed through it all, and thought they would be able to spend the next few months in relative ease, using the lure of the uniform to attract the company of women.
Brother… The prisoner is sitting now, rocking back and forward, alternately grasping his shoulders fiercely, and flailing, scattering the cards. He is breathing so heavily he retches intermittently, due to the plaster sinking into his lungs. The cell is beginning to seem lighter, hotter, but the light is feeling too much, like an inquisition of heat and light and numbing all perception.
When war broke out, very soon after the prisoner and his brother had ended their training, they were sent to fight. They marched over bone-dry, cracked tracks and roads, in the deathly heat of summer, they were strafed and bombed by the enemy. The prisoner remembers his first time under fire, when two men a little way ahead were machine gunned to death by a low-flying aeroplane, and died next to each other. The prisoner, his brother, the rest of the company, hid in the woods by the side of the road. They did not come out for an hour, despite their officer’s frantic orders.
His lip is bleeding. He has bitten it unconsciously, but the words force their way out of his mouth, tearing his lip from the grip of his teeth and spilling blood.
They passed families heading in the opposite direction, hordes of burned out vehicles, corpses, destroyed villages and farms. They ran out of food and had to forage among the scorched fields and crops. They nearly fainted in the heat, carrying their equipment. The march lasted an eternity.
They eventually reached a village, surrounded by fields. It was only a few buildings, some low houses and farm buildings, a church and a school. The day they reached it, they dug shallow trenches with their helmets and hands, for they had no digging equipment. In the afternoon, despite their fear, their tension, or perhaps to allay it, they played football, the prisoner’s squad against one of the others. The score was four-all. Boyish laughter, none of them were older than eighteen. They played using helmets for goalposts. When they had finished, their officer, in his forties and sad-eyed, a reservist, let them sprawl in the sun, stripping to the waist and sharing jokes and stories. The officer just sat on the ground, watching them, sadly, and looking out to the East, whence the enemy would come. After a while, he started crying, and the group fell silent.
The prisoner is no longer within his cell. He is in the village on that scorching hot day, he does not have cards scattered about him and a bleeding lip in a plaster-filled tomb, he is lying on the baking clay, his battledress blouse in a heap next to him, his hands behind his back, laughing at an obscene joke. He is there.
The afternoon wears on, the officer’s crying silences the boys and they look at each other in confusion and embarrassment. The sun is baking and the camaraderie helps dissipate their fear of combat.
One of the Sergeants, the same age as the rest of them, runs to the officer and delivers a hasty report. Resolve etches itself into the officer’s face as he stands, sighs, wipes his eyes and marshals the men. Hurriedly, they regain their uniforms, their helmets, their rifles and their bandoliers. He tells them that the enemy are advancing in this direction, and they are likely to meet elements of the enemy at the village. He says that these may be armoured spearheads.
The boys begin to shake. Tanks. They are terrified of tanks. They do not have any way of fighting tanks, only a handful of antiquated fragmentation grenades, a couple of landmines and their rifles.
The officer tells them not to worry – they are going to allow the tanks to pass them by and then ambush the infantry. By the time the tanks realise, their own armoured reinforcements will have arrived and the enemy will be destroyed. This calms the boys somewhat, and with the sun beginning to set, they are directed to positions.
To the corner of one of the farm buildings, with a clear view through the open doors, are sent the prisoner, his brother, and two other men. They shuffle to their position, nervous but trying not to show it, demonstrating instead, or so they hope, grim determination.
Night falls. The officer jogs to each position, trying to cheer the boys up. He claps shoulders, smiles, makes jokes, tells them all this will blow over soon and not to worry, it’s just a minor action.
When he goes, they feel incomparably lonely. The prisoner realises his brother has his arm around him, and returns the embrace. They are silent.
In the distance, flares light up the sky like fireworks.
There is a rumbling.
It can be distinguished as motor vehicle engines.
The boys know what they have to do. They have to stay hidden, they have to stay safe. When the tanks have passed, these lumbering behemoths, these death machines, the boys will only be fighting other boys, and maybe that will be less terrifying.
The first vehicle judders into view, slow, menacing. It crushed a fence and pushes through the village, a young man with headphones peering from the hatch at the top. Soon it is joined by others, a family of vehicles, rolling through. They are dinosaurs.
Suddenly, one of the vehicles rolls into the side of one of the buildings, where the prisoner’s comrades are waiting. It crushes two boys to death. A third jumps up and screams, screams, screams, and suddenly runs out, and the world ends.
It is all fire, gunfire, flame, shouts, screams, and the tiny crack of the rifles sounds like nothing compared to the inferno that the tanks produce. Part of the farmhouse housing the prisoner and his brother, is hit, they lose their hearing, flaming beams collapse, and the prisoner sprints back and ducks down behind the blade of a combine harvester further inside the farmhouse. And yet, his brother is not there.
Suddenly he peeks over the top, and as his vision and hearing return, his mind begins to shut down.
Standing, writhing, flailing, and on fire, his brother is silhouetted against the flames of the night, with one of the giant, metal vehicles rolling towards the farmhouse. His rifle is gone, he is burning alive, and he screams out only one word.
He screams it again and again, falling down and leaping up and trying to move towards shelter, but wracked with flame and flailing insanely. He twitches as he is hit by machine gun bullets, and he runs, he staggers, out of the farmhouse and into the path of the tank.
The prisoner cannot look away as his brother, his blood brother, is slowly pushed over by the approaching vehicle, and his body is crushed, slowly enough for the screams to become inhuman in their intensity, into the ground and bludgeoned into pieces by the tank tracks. The flames, slowly, die out under the weight of the vehicle. The prisoner has not moved, but has not been conscious enough for any thought to reach his mind.
He does not recall anything after this moment, but blinks and, with a shame and relief, is back in his cell. He is pressed up against the cool plaster and stone wall, facing into the room, his arms and legs spread-eagled, forming a cross saltire of his frail body.
The prisoner is crying, but as the flames die out of his vision, leaving only faint impressions of light in the corners of his twitching eyes, he gathers up his cards, his hands shaking. He puts a hand to his heart, feeling the suddenly unfamiliar beat.
The prisoner takes deep breaths, slows his heart, sits at his station and shuffles the cards.
The room is small. The walls are thick concrete, with flaking plaster that coats the very air. The air is thick, like the walls, and every breath is laboured.
And this is where the prisoner will exist forever. Because, as one might expect, he will never allow himself the luxury of dying. His guilt, his burden, is too great for that.
The prisoner shuffles and cuts the pack, lays the cards out, and when the game is ready, the prisoner closes his eyes, erases his mind, and begins to play.