I wake up, blinking hard against the sky, and the ?rst thing I remember is that my wife cannot forgive me. Never, ever. Then I remind myself I don’t have a wife anymore. Instead, I’m lying at the bottom of a stairwell, thirty concrete steps below street level in a city far from my home. My home is in the past, and I must live in the present.
I’m lying on a soft pile of rubbish bags, and I seem to have got myself covered in muck. It’s all over my shabby green raincoat and the frayed sleeves of my jumper, and there’s a bit on my trousers as well. I sniff it, trying to decide what it is, but I can’t be sure.
How strange I didn’t notice it when I was checking this place out last night. OK, it was already dark by then and I was desperate to ?nd somewhere to doss down after being moved on twice already. But I remember crawling into the rubbish really carefully, prodding the bin bags with my hands and thinking this was the softest and driest bed I was likely to ?nd. Maybe the muck seeped out later on, under pressure from my sleeping body.
I look around for something to wipe my clothes with. There’s nothing, really. If I were a cat, I’d lick the crap off with my tongue, and still be a proud, even fussy creature. But I’m not a cat. I’m a human being.
So, I pull a crumpled-up advertising brochure out of the trash, wet it with dregs from a beer bottle, and start to scrub my jacket vigorously with the damp wad of paper.
Maybe it’s the exercise, or maybe the rising sun, but pretty soon I feel I can probably get by without these dirty clothes—at least until tonight. And tonight is too far away to think about.
I stand up, leaving my raincoat and jumper lying in the garbage, where they look as if they belong anyway. I’m left with a big white T-shirt on, my wrinkled neck and skinny arms bare, which feels just right for the temperature. The T-shirt’s got writing on the front, but I’ve forgotten what the writing says. In fact, I can’t remember where I got this T-shirt, whether someone gave it to me or I stole it or even bought it, long long ago.
I climb the stone steps back up to the street, and start walking along the footpath in no particular direction, just trying to become part of the picture generally. The big picture. Sometimes in magazines you see a photograph of a street full of people, an aerial view. Everyone looks as though they belong, even the blurry ones.
I ?gure it must be quite early, because although there’s lots of traf?c on the road, there’s hardly any pedestrians. Some of the shops haven’t opened yet, unless it’s a Sunday and they aren’t supposed to. So there’s my ?rst task: working out what day it is. It’s good to have something to get on with.
Pretty soon, though, I lose my concentration on this little mission. There’s something wrong with the world today, something that puts me on edge.
It’s to do with the pedestrians. As they pass by me on the footpath, they look at me with extreme suspicion—as if they’re thinking of reporting me to the police, even though I’ve taken my dirty clothes off to avoid offending them. Maybe my being in short sleeves is the problem. Everyone except me seems to be wrapped up in lots of clothes, as though it’s much colder than I think it is. I guess I’ve become a hard man.
I smile, trying to reassure everybody, everybody in the world.
Outside the railway station, I score half a sandwich from a litter bin. I can’t taste much, but from the texture I can tell it’s OK—not slimy or off. Rubbish removal is more regular outside the station than in some other places.
A policeman starts walking towards me, and I run away. In my haste I almost bump into a woman with a pram, and she hunches over her baby as if she’s scared I’m going to fall on it and crush it to death. I get my balance back and apologise; she says “No harm? done,” but then she looks me over and doesn’t seem so sure.
By ten o’clock, I’ve been stopped in the street three times already, by people who say they want to help me. One is a middle-aged lady with a black woollen coat and a red scarf, another is an Asian man who comes running out of a newsagent’s, and one is just a kid. But they aren’t offering me food or a place to sleep. They want to hand me over to the police. Each of them seems to know me, even though I’ve never met them before. They call me by name, and say my wife must be worried about me.
I could try to tell them I don’t have a wife anymore, but it’s easier just to run away. The middle-aged lady is on high heels, and the Asian man can’t leave his shop. The kid sprints after me for a few seconds, but he gives up when I leap across the road.
I can’t ?gure out why all these people are taking such an interest in me. Until today, everyone would just look right through me as if I didn’t exist. All this time I’ve been the Invisible Man, now suddenly I’m everybody’s long-lost uncle.
I decide it has to be the T-shirt.
I stop in front of a shop window and try to read what the T-shirt says by squinting at my reflection in the glass. I’m not so good at reading backwards, plus there’s a surprising amount of text, about ?fteen sentences. But I can read enough to tell that my name is spelled out clearly, as well as the place I used to live, and even a telephone number to call. I look up at my face, my mouth is hanging open. I can’t believe that when I left home I was stupid enough to wear a T-shirt with my ID printed on it in big black letters.
But then I must admit I wasn’t in such a good state of mind when I left home—suicidal, in fact.
I’m much better now.
Now, I don’t care if I live or die.
Things seem to have taken a dangerous turn today, though. All morning, I have to avoid people who act like they’re about to grab me and take me to the police. They read my T-shirt, and then they get that look in their eye.
Pretty soon, the old feelings of being hunted from all sides start to come back. I’m walking with my arms wrapped around my chest, hunched over like a drug addict. The sun has gone away but I’m sweating. People are zipping up their parkas, glancing up at the sky mistrustfully, hurrying to shelter. But even under the threat of rain, some of them still slow down when they see me, and squint at the letters on my chest, trying to read them through the barrier of my arms.
By midday, I’m right back to the state I was in when I ?rst went missing. I have pains in my guts, I feel dizzy, I can’t catch my breath, there are shapes coming at me from everywhere. The sky loses its hold on the rain, starts tossing it down in panic. I’m soaked in seconds, and even though getting soaked means nothing to me, I know I’ll get sick and helpless if I don’t get out of the weather soon.
Another total stranger calls my name through the deluge, and I have to run again. It’s obvious that my life on the streets is over.
So, giving up, I head for the Safehouse.
I’ve never been to the Safehouse before—well, never inside it anyway. I’ve walked past many times, and I know exactly where to ?nd it. It’s on the side of town where all the broken businesses and closed railway stations are, the rusty barbed-wire side of town, where everything waits forever to be turned into something new. The Safehouse is the only building there whose windows have light behind them.
Of course I’ve wondered what goes on inside, I won’t deny that. But I’ve always passed it on the other side of the street, hurried myself on before I could dawdle, pulling myself away as if my own body were a dog on a lead.
Today, I don’t resist. Wet and emaciated and with my name writ large on my chest, I cross the road to the big grey building.
The Safehouse looks like a cross between a warehouse and school, built in the old-fashioned style with acres of stone façade and scores of identical windows, all glowing orange and black. In the geometric centre of the building is a fancy entrance with a motto on its portal. GIB MIR DEINE ARME, it says, in a dull rainbow of wrought iron.
Before I make the ?nal decision, I hang around in front of the building for a while, in case the rain eases off. I walk the entire breadth of the façade, hoping to catch a glimpse of what lies behind, but the gaps between the Safehouse and the adjacent buildings are too narrow. I stretch my neck, trying to see inside one of the windows—well, it feels as if I’m stretching my neck, anyway. I know necks don’t really stretch and we’re the same height no matter what we do. But that doesn’t stop me contorting my chin like an idiot.
Eventually I work up the courage to knock at the door. There’s no doorbell or doorknocker, and in competition with the rain my knuckles sound feeble against the dense wood. From the inside, the pok pok pok of my flesh and bone will probably be mistaken for water down the drain. However, I can’t bring myself to knock again until I’m sure no one has heard me.
I shift my weight from foot to foot while I’m waiting, feeling warm sweat and rainwater suck at the toes inside my shoes. My T-shirt is so drenched that it’s hanging down almost to my knees, and I can read a telephone number that people are supposed to ring if they’ve seen me. I close my eyes and count to ten. Above my head, I hear the squeak of metal against wood.
I look up at the darkening façade, and there, eerily framed in the window nearest to the top of the portal, is a very old woman in a nurse’s uniform. She flinches at the rain and, mindful of her perfectly groomed hair and pastel cottons, stops short of leaning her head out. Instead she looks down at me from where she stands, half-hidden in shadow.
“What can we do for you?” she says, guardedly, raising her voice only slightly above the weather.
I realise I have no answer for her, no words. Instead, I unwrap my arms from my torso, awkwardly revealing the text on my T-shirt. The sodden smock of white fabric clings to my skin as I lean back, blinking against the rain. The old woman reads carefully, her eyes rolling to and fro in their sockets. When she’s ?nished she reaches out a pale, bone-wristed hand and takes hold of the window latch; without speaking she shuts the dark glass ?rmly between us and disappears.
Moments later, the massive door creaks open, and I’m in.
Even before the door has shut behind me, the sound of the rain is swallowed up in the gloomy interior hush of old architecture. I step uncertainly across the threshold into silence.
The nurse leads me through a red velvety vestibule lit by a long row of ceiling lamps which seem to be giving out about ?fteen watts apiece. There is threadbare carpet underfoot, and complicated wallpaper, cracked and curling at the skirtingboards and cornices. As I follow the faintly luminous nurse’s uniform through the amber passageway, I glance sideways at the gilt-framed paintings on the walls: stern old men in grey attire, mummi?ed behind a patina of discoloured varnish like university dons or Victorian industrialists.
On our way to wherever, we pass what appears to be an of?ce; through its window I glimpse ?ling cabinets and an obese ?gure hunched over a paper-strewn desk. But the old woman does not pause; if my admission to the Safehouse involves any paperwork it seems I’m not required to ?ll in the forms myself.
Another door opens and I am ushered into a very different space: a large, high-ceilinged dining room so brightly lit by fluorescent tubes that I blink and almost miss my footing. Spacious as a gymnasium and cosy as an underground car park, the Safehouse mess hall welcomes me, whoever I may be. Its faded pink walls, synthetic furniture and scuffed wooden floor glow with reflected light. And, despite its dimensions, it is as warm as anyone could want, with gas heaters galore.
At one end, close to where I have entered, two fat old women in nurses’ uniforms stand behind a canteen counter wreathed in a fog of brothy vapour. They ladle soup into ceramic bowls, scoop flaccid white bread out of damp plastic bags, fetch perfect toast out of antique black machines. One of them looks up at me and smiles for half a second before getting back to her work.
The rest of the hall is littered with a hundred mismatching chairs (junk-shop boxwood and stainless steel) and an assortment of tables, mostly Formica. It is also littered with human beings, a placid, murmuring population of men, women and teenage children—a hundred of them, maybe more. Even at the ?rst glimpse, before I take in anything else, they radiate a powerful aura—an aura of consensual hopelessness. Other than this, they are as mismatched as the furniture, all sizes and shapes, from roly-poly to anorexic thin, from English rose to Jamaica black. Most are already seated, a few are wandering through the room clutching a steaming bowl, searching for somewhere good to sit. Each and every one of them is dressed in a white T-shirt just like mine.
Behind me, a door shuts; the old nurse has left me to fend for myself, as if it should be transparently obvious how things work here. And, in a way, it is. The ?sts I have clenched in anticipation of danger grow slack as I accept that my arrival has made no impression on the assembled multitude. I am one of them already.
Hesitantly, I step up to the canteen counter. A bearded man with wayward eyebrows and bright blue eyes is already standing there waiting, his elbow leaning on the edge. Though his body is more or less facing me, his gaze is ?xed on the old women and the toast they’re buttering for him. So, I take the opportunity to read what the text on his T-shirt says.
Jeffrey disappeared on 7th April 1994 from his work in Leeds. He was driving his blue Mondeo, registration L562 WFU. Jeffrey had been unwell for some time and it was decided he would go to hospital to receive treatment. He may be seeking work as a gas-?tter. Jeffrey’s family are extremely worried about him. His wife says he is a gentle man who loves his two daughters very much. “We just want to know how you are,” she says. “Everything is sorted out now.” Have you have seen Jeffrey? If you have any information, please contact the Missing Persons Helpline. ?
Jeffrey Annesley reaches out his big gnarly hands and takes hold of a plate of food. No soup, just a small mound of toast. He mumbles a thanks I cannot decipher, and walks away, back to a table he has already claimed.
“What would you like, pet?” says one of the old women behind the canteen counter. She sounds Glaswegian and has a face like an elderly transvestite.
“What is there?” I ask.
“Soup and toast,” she says.
“What sort of soup?”
“Pea and ham.” She glances at my chest, as if to check whether I’m vegetarian. “But I can try to scoop it so as there’s no ham in yours.”
“No, it’s all right, thank you,” I assure her. “Can I have it in a cup?”
She turns to the giant metal pot on the stove, her fat shoulders gyrating as she decants my soup. I notice that the seams of her uniform have been mended several times, with thread that is not quite matching.
“Here you are, pet.”
She hands me an orange-brown stoneware mug, ?lled with earthy-looking soup I cannot smell.
“Thank you,” I say.
I weave my way through the litter of chairs and tables. Here and there someone glances at me as I pass, but mostly I’m ignored. I take my seat near a young woman who is slumped with her feet up on a table, apparently asleep. On the lap of her mud-stained purple trousers, a plate of toast rises and falls almost imperceptibly. The forward tilt of her head gives her a double chin, even though she is scrawny and small.
I read her T-shirt. It says:
Cathy left her home in Bristol in July 2002 to stay in London. She has run away before but never for this long. At Christmas 2003, a girl claiming to be a friend of Cathy’s rang Cathy’s auntie in Dessborough, Northants, asking if Cathy could come to visit. This visit never happened. Cathy’s mother wants her to know that Cathy’s stepfather is gone now and that her room is back the way it was. “I have never stopped loving you,” she says. “Snoopy and Paddington are next to your pillow, waiting for you to come home.” Cathy suffers from epilepsy and may need medicine. ?If you have seen her, please call the Missing Persons Helpline.
Cathy snoozes on, a stray lock of her blonde hair fluttering in the updraught from her breath.
I lean back in my chair and sip at my mug of soup. I taste nothing much, but the porridgy liquid is satisfying in my stomach, ?lling a vacuum there. I wonder what I will have to do in order to be allowed to stay in the Safehouse, and who I can ask about this. As a conversationalist I have to admit I’m pretty rusty. Apart from asking passers-by for spare change, I haven’t struck up a conversation with anyone for a very long time. How does it work? Do you make some comment about the weather? I glance up at the windows, which are opaque and high above the ground. There is a faint pearlescent glow coming through them, but I can’t tell if it’s still raining out there or shining ?t to burst.
The old woman who escorted me here hasn’t returned to tell me what I’m supposed to do next. Maybe she’ll escort somebody else into the hall at some stage, and I can ask her then. But the canteen ladies are cleaning up, putting the food away. They seem to have reason to believe I’m the last new arrival for the afternoon.
I cradle my soup mug in both my hands, hiding my mouth behind it while I survey the dining hall some more. There is a susurrus of talk but remarkably little for such a large gathering of people. Most just sit, staring blindly ahead of them, mute and listless inside their black-and-white texts. I try to eavesdrop on the ones who are talking, but I barely catch a word: I’m too far away, they have no teeth or are from Newcastle, Cathy Stockton has started snoring.
After about twenty minutes, a grizzled bald man walks over to me and parks himself on the chair nearest mine. He extends a hand across the faux-marble patio table for me to shake. There is no need for introductions. He is Eric James Sween, a former builder whose business had been in ?nancial dif?culties before he disappeared from his home in Broxburn, West Lothian, in January 1994.
I wonder, as I shake his surprisingly weak hand, how long ago his wife said she would give anything just to know he was safe. Would she give as much today? The baby daughter she desperately wanted to show him may be experimenting with cigarettes by now.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s a doddle.”
“What is?” I ask him.
“What you have to do here.”
“What do you have to do?”
“A bit of manual labour. Not today: it’s raining too hard. But most days. A cinch.”
The old women seem to have melted away from the canteen, leaving me alone in the dining hall with all these strangers.
“Who runs this place?” I ask Eric James Sween.
“Some sort of society,” he replies, as if sharing information unearthed after years of painstaking research.
“Could be, could be.” He grins. One of his long teeth is brown as a pecan nut. I suspect that if I could read the lower lines of his T-shirt, obscured by the table, there would be a hint of bigger problems than the failure of a business.
Which reminds me:
“No one must know what’s become of me.”
Eric James Sween squints, still smiling, vaguely puzzled. I struggle to make myself absolutely clear.
“The people who run this place… If they’re going to try to… make contact, you know… with…” I leave it there, hoping he’ll understand without me having to name names—although of course one of the names is printed on my breast in big black letters.
Eric James Sween chuckles emphysemally.
“Nobody’s ever gonna see you again,” he assures me. “That’s why you’re here. That’s why they let you in. They can tell you’re ready.”
He is staring at me, his eyes twinkling, his face immobile. I realize that our conversation is over and I wonder if there is something I can do to bring it to a formal conclusion.
“Thank you,” I say.
I sit in my dining room chair for the rest of the afternoon, getting up occasionally to stretch my legs, then returning again to the same chair. No one bothers me. It is bliss not to be moved on, bliss to be left unchallenged. This is all I have wanted every day of my life for as long as I care to remember.
Everyone else in the hall stays more or less where they are, too. They relax, as far as the hard furniture allows, digesting their lunch, biding their time until dinner. Some sleep, their arms hanging down, their ?ngers trailing the floor. Some use their arms to make little pillows for themselves against the headrest of their chairs, nestling their cheek in the crook of an elbow. Others have their knees drawn up tight against their chin, perched like outsized owls on a padded square of vinyl. A few carry on talking, but by now I have reason to wonder if they are really talking to the people they sit amongst. Their eyes stare into the middle distance, they chew their ?ngernails, they speak in low desultory voices. Rather than answering their neighbours or being answered, they speak simultaneously, or lapse simultaneously into silence.
Eric James Sween, perhaps the most restless soul of them all, ends up seated in the most crowded part of the room, drumming on his thighs and knees with his ?ngertips, humming the music that plays inside his head. He hums softly, as if fearful of disturbing anyone, and his ?ngers patter against his trouser legs without audible effect. A little earlier, he found a handkerchief on the floor and wandered around the room with it, asking various people if it was theirs. Everyone shook their heads or ignored him. For a while I was vaguely curious what he would do with the handkerchief if no one accepted it, but then I lost focus and forgot to watch him. My concentration isn’t so good these days. The next time I noticed him, he was hunched on a chair, empty-handed, drumming away.
Occasionally someone gets up to go to the toilet. I know that’s where they’re going because at one point a hulking arthritic woman announces to herself that she had better have a pee, and I follow her. She walks laboriously, obliging me to take childish mincing steps so as not to overtake her. I notice that on the back of her T-shirt she has a lot of text too, much more than on the front. In fact, there is so much text, in such tiny writing, that her back is almost black with it. I try to read some as I walk behind her, but I can’t manage it. The letters are too small, and the woman is contorting her muscles constantly in an effort to keep her ruined body from pitching over.
She leads me to two adjacent toilet doors on the opposite end of the dining hall from the canteen. Fastened to one door is a picture of a gentleman in a frock coat and top hat; the other has a lady in a long crinoline dress, with a bonnet and parasol. I enter the gentleman toilet. It is bigger than I thought it would be and luridly white, more like a room in an art gallery. Above the washbasins is a faded illustration painted directly onto the wall; it depicts a pair of hands washing each other against a green medicinal cross. Reinlichkeit, it says underneath.
I select one of a long row of teardrop urinals to stand at. They look ancient and organic, as if they have been fashioned from a huge quantity of melted-down teeth. There are caramel stains on the enamel like streaks of tobacco. Yet the drain-holes are bubbly with disinfectant, showing that they are clean.
I stand for a while at the urinal, giving myself permission to let go of my little reservoir of waste, but nothing happens, so I leave. At least I know how to ?nd it now.
Finally it is time for the evening meal. The two old nurses arrive and start cooking, in the kitchen behind the canteen. A watery miasma emanates from their labours, floating out into the hall, ascending to the ceiling. There is a general murmur of anticipation. I go to the toilet, successfully clear my bowels, and ?nd myself disturbed almost to tears by the softness of the toilet paper. I wash my hands under the sign of the green cross. A dark coffee of grime swirls in the sink, dilutes and gurgles away.
When I return to the dining hall, a queue is forming at the canteen counter. I wonder whether the Safehouse is the sort of set-up where all the really decent food is snatched by the early birds and there’s only scraps and clammy leftovers for the latecomers. I take my place in the queue, even though I’m not particularly hungry. It’s an opportunity to stand close behind someone, trying to read what’s written on their back.
I’m standing behind a young man with bad acne on his neck and head. He has very short hair, like felt, lovingly clipped to avoid any trauma to all the bulbous little eruptions dotting the flesh of his skull. I wonder if a hairdresser charges a great deal more for that: to exercise such care, such restraint, such understanding. What has brought this young man here, if he so recently had a hairdresser who was prepared to handle his head so gently?
On the back of the young man’s T-shirt is an unbelievable amount of text, a dense mass of small print which I can’t imagine to be anything more than a random weave of symbols, a stylish alphabet texture. Starting near the top of his left shoulder, I read as much as I can before my attention wanes:
n:12/5/82, M:pnd(s), F:ai,
pM1:30/5/82}gs(!vlegLnd), hf8B, M2:31/5/82}gs(!vlegLsd), @n7, gH, ^MGM:ingm, ¬b, c(T)@m, pMGM3:4/6/82(v[#]penisd++), >@m, ¬X+, Hn>j, pF4:8/12/82,
and so on and on, thousands of letters and numbers right down to his waist. I peek over the young man’s shoulder, at the back of the woman standing in front of him, and then, leaning sharply out from the queue, I glimpse the backs of half a dozen people further on. They’re all the same in principle, but some of them have text that only goes as far down as the middle of their backs, while others have so much that their T-shirts have to be longer, more like smocks or dresses.
My own T-shirt is pretty roomy, come to think of it. De?nitely XL. I wonder what’s on it.
There is a man standing behind me, a tall man with thick glasses and hair like grey gorse. I smile at him, in case he’s been reading the back of my T-shirt and knows more than me.
“Lamb tonight,” he says, his magni?ed bloodshot eyes begging me to leave him be.
I turn and face front again. When my turn comes to be served, I am given a plate of piping-hot lamb stew. The fat nurse has dished it up in such a way that there is a big doughnut-shaped ring of mashed potato all around the edge of the plate, with a puddle of stew enclosed inside it. As she hands it over she smiles wanly, as if admitting she just can’t help being a bit creative with the presentation, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe she’s learned that this is the best way to prevent people spilling stew off their plates on their way back to the tables.
I sit down somewhere and eat the stew…