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24 Feb

Here’s a new short story that crept up on me last night.

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By Gemma Critchley

I just saw it stuck there.

Last Tuesday.

I’d never seen it before; or at least I’d never noticed it. Not sure why I would have, in fairness. I mean, I go down this corridor at least twice a day. I suppose you end up on autopilot a lot of the time. I bet you can’t remember every step you take whenever you leave the house, can you? I sometimes get to wherever I’m going without any real recollection of how I got there. Know what I mean?

I half-notice other people doing it too. In my peripheral vision on the train, getting their post from the mailroom of my hastily-erected and ill-planned block of flats, drifting around the co-op with a tin of tuna in their basket. People moan about how nowadays, no one knows their neighbours and that common courtesy is dead. I don’t think that’s true, I think people just cram so much more into their lives than they used to that there’s no room for noticing those that spend their lives in the boxes around yours.

But still, I’d have thought I’d have noticed something like this before. A smooth, white, flat rectangle tacked to the wall opposite the door to my flat. Almost a direct mirror of my front door, in size and shape. But white, really white. Dazzling. Brilliant. Blinding. All of those other adjectives used to describe all the colours of the visible spectrum when simultaneously deciphered by the human eye.

The rest of my corridor, my scrap of London, was grey. Of course. Zone 3 Grey, like a Pantone in-joke gone sour. That’s why the rectangle stood out. It shone.

If you looked at it too long, it seemed to be capable of adjusting its texture. Of bristling and rolling and swirling; contracting and expanding and rippling. Rising. Falling. That makes it sound alive. Sorry.

What I mean is: sometimes it looked a bit like an empty picture frame, smooth, glossy, expectant. Other times it appeared to fizz; white on white, like Alka Seltzer dropped into milk.

I’m number 217. I could have sworn 202 was across from me where the rectangle sits. But I never paid that much attention to it, so I could be wrong. Sometimes you imagine stuff was there that you’ve never seen, you know? It’s not like I ever saw a person around this end of the corridor. Or, if I did, I never noticed them. Never knocked on to introduce myself to my neighbours. If there were any in the first place.

I had actually done that a few times since moving to London, mind. On the whole I’d been met with wary, bemused looks. And no neighbour ever knocked on my door to say hello.

So, after carrying my ironing board on the tube from one different flat to another for four years, I suppose I stopped trying.

Did I stop noticing stuff too?

Probably.

But not this.

The first time I noticed the rectangle, last Tuesday, I had one of those weird, unsettling shudders – a cross between those two mythical, everyday occurrences of someone ‘walking over my grave’ and ‘déjà vu’. The left hemisphere of my brain poured logic on the feeling like Gaviscon on heartburn.

After mushroom soup – from a carton, not a tin – I went to bed but stayed there and awake, an inexplicable dull ache where I imagined my heart was. When I Googled the pain, it suggested I probably had a heady cocktail of no-doubt incurable illnesses, including but not limited to: lung cancer, heartbreak, breast cancer, dysphagia, psychosis and rabies.

I lay in the half-light glow of the takeaway signs on the street outside and prepared for my seemingly inevitable demise as I willed sleep to settle uncomfortably over me, like an airline blanket.

I doubt I’d have even given it a second thought if the next few days had it not panned out the way they did.

The second day I saw it, I was getting home after a particularly bad day at work. I almost thought I could hear the hiss of it as I slid the teeth of my key into the Yale lock and turned it sharply to the right, faster than I normally would, to put wood between me and the world. Staring hard at the dull blue of the heavy fire door, my blood turned my heart into a bat inside my rib cage, rabid from the transfusion after yesterday’s webMD session and frantic to escape. I scolded myself for being ‘daft’ and turned on all the lights in the house. I went to bed, but for the second night in a row, I didn’t sleep.

By Thursday, the pull of the white shape was like an itch in the centre of my back, just out of reach thanks to years of missed yoga classes. I poured myself a mug of gin, drank it neat, wretched. Sleep came.

On Friday, I woke up in front of it.

I don’t know how that happened. I’m not a sleepwalker. I backed away from it into my flat, Yale on the latch, me on my knees; dazed and dizzy. I vomited hard into the 80s avocado green porcelain bowl of my rented toilet until I saw stars.

Saturday, I had the fleeting freedom of not having to leave the flat. I didn’t have to see it if I didn’t want to. I sat, ripping through cup after cup of tea, telly off, curtains closed, seated then standing, panicked, like a commuter on a train in front of a pregnant woman. Rings from my mug making two, six, nine damp crop circles in the MDF of the coffee table.

Pacing.

Itching.

Nail biting. Nail biting! That isn’t something I do. I must’ve picked it up from a film.

I couldn’t leave it alone. All that lay between me and it was fifteen feet of cheap laminate flooring, a heavy fire door, the Yale lock and a peep hole. It would be so easy to just take a look. See if anything had… Changed.

Looking never hurts, right?

Feeling the rush of release that comes with submission, I crossed the crumbed tiles of the kitchenette to the door. Pushing myself onto slight tiptoes, I levelled my right eye with the circle of glass, designed, no doubt, as a forerunner to call screening.

The pain in my eye was both immediate and not obvious. But I knew how to fix it.

Move forward.

Before I knew it, I was fumbling with door chains, Chubb and Yale turning in my hands like pottery on a wheel.

I pulled the door inwards and stepped into the corridor, illuminated like someone had pressed pause on the double pulse of the flash that precedes a nuclear explosion. The width of the corridor would have been easy to clear in two steps, I took three, four, five strides towards the rectangle.

Everything.

Hurt.

At primary school, a boy in my class had once taken a piano tuning fork and whacked it hard across the knuckles of my left hand. That’s what this felt like. A sustained, crackling current of pain; vibrating through me from the most bony of my extremities to the yellow and red slop that makes up insides.

Then: whiteout.

And now this.

Sitting here, telling you all this, feels a bit ridiculous. Although it probably doesn’t feel that way to you, right? I couldn’t believe it how many of you were in here when I arrived. And some of you have been around for how long? 12 years? That’s as long as the flats have been here for. Imagine! All the neighbours from the second floor, stuck together here. All with the same story. Drawn out of autopilot by a stinging longing to make a connection with something.

And now we have a connection. A glowing white tube of neon glass, looped around the left wrist of each of us, linked together and buzzing with a sticky undercurrent of dread. Four white walls, connecting a white ceiling and a white floor. And each other.

That’s all we have.

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