FICTION: Ten Empty Rooms

One

Sitting room. Fifth floor. White afternoon light through soot-crusted windows. The hum of traffic on the Finchley Road below. A single strip of woodchip wallpaper curls over to reveal bare plaster. Marks have been left by a thick, soft pencil – the increasing heights of two children: Judith 7.3.38, Julius 28.4.38… Spaces in black dust where pictures once hung. Stains on the carpet next to the small fireplace, marking the boundaries of a long-gone armchair. There are three doors, two closed, one open onto the unlit hallway. The darkness there is unstill. The shadows shift. Something waits, shy of the light. On the floor below, someone plays a tentative note on a violin. In the empty flat there is a sigh only one degree louder than silence.

Two

Stock room. Basement. Dim orange streetlight glow warped through glass bricks set into the pavement above, on Back Turner Street. Bare brick walls. Ceiling of boards and beams. Stone floor, unevenly patched. There are three items in the room. First, a warped, mould-blackened glamour calendar displaying August 1987– ‘Jeanette’. Second, a scrap of pink carbon paper faded to blankness, smeared with oil. And, third, a broken picture frame leaning against the wall. Its glass is cracked. The photograph has been ruined by damp and spores but five faces can just be made out. Somewhere beyond the room, a guard dog barks. In the basement, a fingernail scrapes weakly against concrete.

Three

Faraday Ward. First floor. Polystyrene ceiling tiles scattered and shattered on the linoleum. Bindweed grows through the window frames and across the yellow-painted walls. No beds, no visitors’ chairs, no bedside tables. The built-in clock above the swing doors stopped many years ago. Water has come in through the roof and knocks insistently on the floor. Over the course of years it has formed a ring – yellow-green on the outside, bruise black at the centre. Hours pass until daylight begins to fade. There is a squeal. The doors swing open, swing back, screech, slowed by their own decaying springs. They judder back into their resting position.

Four

Kitchen. Ground floor. Overlooking a garden overtaken by brambles, enveloping the rotten remains of a summer house and a set of rusting swings. The doors of the fitted cabinets and drawers, lined with scraps of wallpaper, hang open. Tiles that were once white, now grey, are stained with cat food in the corner by the back door. Dark lines mark the absent fridge, table, dresser and washing machine. The only sound is of mice chewing and running behind the skirting boards. A dead lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. It moves slowly from side to side as if caught in a breeze, though the air is stale and still.

Five

Studio flat. Third floor. Perfectly clean, newly painted, flat white walls and pristine mushroom-grey carpet. One large space with a minimal kitchen at the deep end. Only the bathroom has its own door. Hard sunlight through a skylight sketches a bright square on the floor. Over the course of the afternoon it slides along and up the wall. Then moonlight repeats the performance, this time in blue. From the corner where the shadow is most dense comes a sound like cotton brushing bare skin. Then something less than a whisper, close but far away, then something less than laughter, then fragile silence.

Six

Warehouse number two. Stripped bare, ready for demolition. Dirty yellow daylight through the corrugated PVC roof, which replaced a Victorian original after the Blitz. Pigeons flutter against the ceiling. Rats run through the tide of scraps and cigarette ends around the edges of the space. As the building rots, every small sound triggers an answering echo: plaster falls from the walls, pipes drip, fittings shrink and swell. Sometimes, there are footsteps, too, or something like them, or maybe nothing like them, although if you knew Gerry Mills when he was foreman, you might think you recognised the sound.

Seven

Public toilet. Far side of the park. Bricked up. Frosted windows with frames painted council green. Fired tiles, their surfaces crazed and chipped, cover the walls and floor. Scraps of a poster offer a ten pound reward for reports of vandalism. Another, high on the wall, says: ‘Did you know V.D. can be cured?’ Outside, there are the sounds of traffic, dance music, children playing, birdsong and barking dogs. Inside, only the creak of ceiling beams as they expand in midday summer heat. There are three cubicles, two without doors. The third door is still there and almost closed. Through the gap, perhaps the wet glint of an eye.

Eight

Office. Sixth floor. Painted on the frosted glass of the door is the name of a company whose owner comes here once a week to collect post and check the answerphone. No desk, no filing cabinets, no stock – just a telephone balanced on the windowsill over an ancient radiator and a single plastic school chair. Every time the wind gusts across the moor, the plastic vent set into the window flaps its louvres and the frame whines or whistles. Once or twice a year, the telephone gets thrown to the floor or, like now, the chair suddenly judders and scrapes a metre across the floorboards, with painful effort.

Nine

Classroom. Second floor. Windows covered with steel to keep out squatters. Thin beams of white light through pencil-hole perforations casting constellations on the far wall. That’s the wall with scraps of drawings and projects – blue ink faded to brown, felt tip pen colours washed away to near nothing. No chairs, no tables and only screw holes where bookcases were once fixed in place. The blackboard is blank, not black, scuffed to grey. From certain angles, chalk marks can be seen in the dust. Digit-thick, clumsy, but unmistakable: words, a name, some feeble attempt to reach across.

Ten

Room twelve. First floor. Notices on yellowing plastic ask guests to reuse their towels and notify them of the fire drill. No bed. No chair. Just a plush headboard in mustard-coloured Velveteen screwed to the wall and a single lace curtain dangling from a rod. The curtain ripples in the razor-sharp breeze that seeps through a crack in the window. Through the window, a blank wall on the other side of the alley, wet with black-green slime. The carpet has more stains than pure colour and grooves where furniture sat for thirty years. In the low, cold light, something flickers into being and, for the length of a blink, the room isn’t empty at all.

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