The prisoner had served half his sentence.
His cell was just big enough to lie down in but there were no windows. There was no door either. When they put him in the cell they took away the door and left just a long slit through which they would push his meal supplements. In the corner there was a hole which stank occasionally.
On the wall where the door had been there was a display. When he first came in to the cell the display had shown numbers. The numbers were: 52,000.
Now the numbers showed 23,452 years 12 days 7 hours 42 minutes and 15 seconds. He ran a hand over his face, a face he had long since forgotten. He knew he hadn’t aged. It was the face he had come in to the cell with, not young, not old, a face from the middle of his life. There was no stubble. His hair was the same length as when he came in. His teeth were still perfect apart from the one filling and the slight chip on a front tooth. He let his hand stay on his chin. He pushed a finger against it like the finger was a razor, trying to remember what it felt like to shave. He remembered filings of hair in the sink, some escaping and clinging around the tap. The tap turned on would wash the rest of his hairs away down the sink but there were always a few left around the tap that needed to be coaxed down, wiped with a hand or a cloth and made to join the stream of flecked water down into the drain.
He couldn’t tell you what his crime was. For the first few years he had said it over and over again like a mantra but now the mantra had distorted. Each morning he sat in what he thought was the lotus position and he said his warped mantra.
“Asabringem dar ran a gam gam….asabringem dar ran a gam gam….asabringem dar ran a gam gam…”
Those words were all that was left of his crime.
Sometimes he would try to climb the walls. Once he reached the ceiling and fell to his bed, cracking his head against the frame. That was the first time he had bled since the day they caught him.
He remembered being caught. Or he remembered a film of someone being caught. It became a collage of images. There were dogs in a corn field. There were torches in the night. There was a barn. There was a woman who didn’t know his crime and gave him bread. There was gunfire. There was a river. There was a man, him maybe, plunging into its freezing shallows. There was mud covering his body and him staying still as the dogs and torches passed. There was him waiting in a motel room for them to come. There was him standing on the steps of the court room yelling that they would never capture him. There was a speakeasy where he got a scotch. His last scotch. He had never tasted scotch. He wouldn’t know how to swallow liquid now. He collapsed.
Years later the numbers stopped and the lights went out. They stopped on 12,233 years 123 days 14 hours 59 minutes and 10 seconds. He crouched like what he thought a cat would crouch and said his mantra, his crime.
“Ausil begga deralla gaga…ausil begga deralla gaga…ausil begga deralla gaga…”
A tablet fell through the slit in the wall. He stopped mid mantra and fell towards the tablet. He remembered something. He held the tablet up and broke it in two. A thin red liquid came from it. This was his blood. He ate it. The red liquid was warm in his mouth and he sputtered, red covering his chin and splattering the floor. His tongue didn’t know what to do with liquid. The tablet fell from his mouth and for days it stayed there in its little red pool. He ate it on a Sunday and fell in to a deep sleep.
“Just go in the garden and play with your ball,” said Jasmine to her son Ewan.
She was standing in the big bay window looking up the road. It had been raining but she didn’t care that Ewan would get mud on his shoes, drag that mud through the house and up the stairs onto his clean duvet. She waved a hand at him.
“Go on, I told you, go play with the ball,” she said
Ewan put on his raincoat and trudged out into the garden. A ginger tom sat on the garage and seeing it he picked up a small stone from the shale and threw it hard at the cat. The cat darted away in time but Ewan was sure the stone had hit its tail.
He kicked his ball long up the garden so that it thudded against the fence and came back to him. As soon as he was on the grass, running to hammer the ball back against the fence, he could feel the grass give way to mud and the mud splash up his leg, against his white socks and good school trousers. He came to the ball and he volleyed it.
As his foot met the ball he fell back and felt mud cover his raincoat. The ball flew up into the air and instead of smashing against the fence it carried over the fence and into the garden of the big house that backed onto theirs.
The big house was a mock-Georgian mansion and the owners had put up two greenhouses and a shed that the man, a doctor Jasmine always said, had converted into a little office. They had a gardener and sometimes in the summer they would erect a marquee in the garden and have parties. Jasmine liked to sit in her own garden on her bench and drink wine whilst the parties went on.
They used to have a dog in the big house. It was a Jack Russell and it would come to the fence and stick its nose through a gap, barking. Once, Ewan had waited for it to stop barking and settle into sniffing through the gap. He had kicked his ball hard at the exposed snout. The dog yelped and its barking had faded up the garden to the big house.
Ewan lay on the grass. He watched as the ball lifted over the fence and passed through the gap between the two overhanging trees. It carried further than he could have ever thought it might. He lay there waiting, expecting.
And then he heard it. The smash. He knew that the ball had carried too far for it to have smashed into one of the greenhouses and he smiled knowing he must have kicked it as far as the house. He lay there grinning in the mud, waiting for an angry voice to start shouting, for his mother to come out, for someone to hammer on their door demanding a new window. But after ten minutes there was nothing.
He stood up and went to the gap in the fence. He knelt in the mud and peered through. He had a clear sight up the garden and he could see that his ball had found a target in the French windows. A whole panel had been smashed and little shattered pieces of glass were hanging from the wood. He stayed there for a few more minutes to make sure there really was no one in and then he yanked back a slat of the fence. It came away so easily. The fence must have been older than him, he thought, as he pulled away two more slats so that there was a gap now just big enough for him to move through.
2,344 years 11 days 13 hours 34 minutes and 16 seconds.
The prisoner had a visitor.
He hadn’t had a tablet for years now. Suddenly the lights came back on and the numbers began to change, counting down. A tablet fell through the gap and he dived on to it, he pushed it into his mouth and swallowed without biting. He felt it slowly and awkwardly fall down his throat.
“Are you well?” said a voice through the slit and another tablet fell through. The prisoner grabbed it and pushed it into his mouth.
“I…” he began to say but he only knew that one word, “…I.”
“I see,” said the voice, “only to be expected. I’m afraid we had a few problems. Things have changed out here. Do you understand?”
“I…” said the prisoner.
The voice coughed.
“Very good,” it said, “now listen. Things have changed and we’ve reviewed your file. You did a terrible thing didn’t you, didn’t you?”
“I…” said the prisoner.
“Good, we’re glad you agree,” said the voice and the prisoner heard a scratching. Mice scratched. You scratched your legs at night when it was too hot. Women scratch when you make love to them. One woman. A razor scratches. A pen scratches at a page and leaves stains. The prisoner looked down at his hand and brought his fingers together as if he were holding a pen.
“Can you just confirm that you do agree,” said the voice, all the time there was the scratching.
“I…” said the prisoner.
“Good,” said the voice, “now we can’t be seen to treat you as a special case, do you see? We must be seen to be firm, especially after everything that has happened. So here’s what we’re going to do.”
The wall where there was a once a door flashed and the numbers began to change. They blinked quickly though time. They became a mess of light and the prisoner waited for the numbers to realign.
The numbers stopped.
42,333 years 112 days 14 hours 52 minutes and 11 seconds.
“I think you’ll find that’s fair,” said the voice, “good evening.”
A third tablet fell through the slit and the prisoner heard the voice’s footsteps move away. He fell to the floor so that his mouth came over the tablet. He fell heavily and chipped his teeth so that now it was no longer only the one front tooth that was chipped. He ran his tongue along his teeth, each one felt cracked and broken. He began to say his mantra against the floor.
“Ara so d’di gr agro…ara so d’di gr agro…ara so d’di gr agro…”
Ewan put his hand through the missing panel and opened the French doors. As the door opened a few more pieces of glass dislodged and fell. He paused for a moment, waiting, but still there was no response.
He began to whistle. Jasmine had been right; the house was ‘beautifully done-up’. In the dining room, the room with the French doors, there was a large piano and a great long oak table with eight chairs around it. There were candelabra placed on the table. Ewan picked one up and tapped it against the table. It was a quiet sound and the table was barely dented. He tapped again, harder. He could see a little indentation in the table now. Again he raised the candelabra and then he brought it down heavily against the table. Bits of wood chipped away. Beneath the deep brown of the table was a lighter brown. The candelabra was bent slightly.
Ewan dropped the candelabra and seeing his ball he took a run at it and volleyed it against the fireplace. Bits of coal rolled onto the Turkish rug. The ball rolled back at his feet and he readied himself to hit it again. This time he aimed at the great mirror hanging over the fireplace. He stepped back, rolling the ball back with him, and then he kicked it as hard as he could. The ball hit the mirror and came away. For a second nothing happened until the mirror began to topple forward and came crashing down onto the rug. Ewan heard the glass shatter. He whistled his way into the kitchen.
He turned on both taps in the Belfast sink and plugged the sink with balled up copies of the local paper.
As the water filled the sink and began to overflow he opened the fridge. There was little to eat in the fridge. There was no milk or meat or salads, there was only some crème fraiche which he placed carefully on the floor and then jumped on with both feet. The crème fraiche burst from the carton and sprayed the alternating black and white tiles. He did the same with six yoghurts and a tub of buffalo mozzarella. The mozzarella squelched beneath his feet and mixed with the crème fraiche and yoghurt mess.
There was a downstairs bathroom so he waded back into the kitchen and got some more copies of the local paper and plugged the bath and sink with them. As he went upstairs it was like he was leaving a waterfall behind, all he could hear was rushing water.
There was an old battered ottoman at the top of the stairs and opening it he saw it was full of blankets. He pulled them out and dropped them over the landing. Then he pushed the ottoman to the top of the stairs and began to fill it with whatever he could find in the bedrooms. He found DVD players and game systems in the children’s rooms, shelves of books and a small rocking horse. He found a box full of jewellery and family albums. He looked through one of the albums at all the holidays they had been on, all the beaches, bikinis and blistering sun. He filled the ottoman, adding a small television and bottles of perfume. The ottoman was a great deal heavier now but he managed to get it so it was tipping over the top stair and then lay on his back on the floor and pushed at the ottoman with his feet. Down it went, crashing and shattering and spilling its contents as it went. Soon the house smelled of so many different perfumes.
He did his bathroom trick again to the two upstairs bathrooms and then he was ready to go. With his ball under his arm he was about to go downstairs when he looked into a bedroom he hadn’t noticed before. It must have been their daughter’s room because the walls were painted a light pink and there were teddy bears on the bed as if they were pillows. The room smelled of fruit, of strawberries.
Ewan opened the daughter’s wardrobes. Each one was full of clothes. There were more clothes in those wardrobes than Ewan had ever seen before, more clothes he thought than anyone might need, certainly more than his mother owned. He began pulling them out and flinging them about the room.
Somewhere a clock struck, startling him. He stopped and stood very still. There were only the continuing dongs of the clock so he pulled out a drawer and tipping it on to the floor he saw that it was her underwear. He reached down and picked up a bra. The clock struck again. He brought the bra to his face and inhaled the smell. It was the same sweet strawberry smell. The clock struck again and he shoved the bra into his raincoat pocket and ran downstairs, through the lake of water he had created and out into the garden. It was darker now and he knew that his mother would have stopped standing in the big window because there was no point in keeping on looking, waiting, once it was evening.
12 minutes 42 seconds.
“Arrows diverge gracefully….arrows diverge gracefully…arrows diverge gracefully…”
He had been saying his mantra continuously now for four hundred years without a break. All the time he had refused to eat his tablets. There was a mound of them in front of the wall that was once a door. He could only vaguely remember that the mound had not always been there. The mantra was said for the mound or the lights or the numbers. He wasn’t sure. He kept saying it and the words would fluctuate, changing. His hands had been joined together in prayer now for centuries. He was wasting away. Nearly all his teeth were gone and each tooth had been added to the mound. If he moved, which he never did, his bones would creak. They might break, simply snap with the shock of movement. He had no hair. His skin no longer had any pigment and his eyes were as red as the light of the numbers, reflecting that light, becoming it.
1 minute 12 seconds.
The wall began to change. An outline of something began to appear. He clasped his hands together hard. The vision solidified and became a shape. It cut through the numbers. The slit vanished and it was replaced by a handle. This was because of the mound; this was the glory of the mound.