I begin to keep count of the days. Well, the space between sleeps, anyway. I’m no longer aimless, lost in the dark. I have something to keep me going, something to motivate me to more than just animal existence. I spend as much time as I can against the wall, listening for any faint sound, any proof that she is still there. Sometimes I knock on the plaster, or call for her, and because I don’t know her name I call her ‘Woman’. I don’t know if she minds: she doesn’t reply.
After a week I begin to think that maybe I was imagining things. Maybe she was just in my head, a way my mind came up with to cope with its slow collapse. Maybe I’m finally going mad. I wonder if a madman knows he’s mad. If he knows, how can he be mad? Would only a madman think the things I’m thinking now? Do the insane have enough presence of mind to be aware of the state they’re in, what they’re doing and saying? Are they just unable to communicate it? I think how terrible it would be to be aware of your own madness, and unable to do anything about it. I dream that I am a puppet, and someone is making me dance and caper in front of a roomful of children, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I resort to the CD player again, desperate to hear the sound of a voice, even if it is just a recording. I put on an audiobook: The White Ship by H.P. Lovecraft — but it’s a depressing story, so I turn it off and choose something from the music section instead. They have become very good at anticipating my tastes, and I generally find something that I like: the ballads of the 70s and 80s in particular, or anything by Simon and Garfunkel. Listening to the opening lines of The Sound of Silence always makes me laugh.
But this time the music is unfamiliar: a tinny piano playing a couple of opening chords, then a disjointed mass of children’s voices cascading over each other, eventually forming something like lyrics. … all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all …
I skip to the next track. Another piano intro, then the children’s choir again: … to Calvary he went for me, he went for me, he went for me; all the way to Calvary he went for me, and now he sets me free …
This time I listen to the whole thing. It’s the kind of song I remember from school assemblies, and it brings back the memories vividly: the squeak of rubber soles on the school hall floor; the smell of pee from the dirty boy in the row behind; the ribbon in Sally Jessop’s hair; the booming voice of Mr. Dunstable exhorting us in the Christian virtues of Honesty, Charity, and Mercy. It’s that kind of song, but it’s not the same — those songs were pathetic, milk-white imitations of religion, more concerned with morality than with the fate of a never-dying soul. I remember wondering once what an infinitely powerful, never-dying being whose intellect was as high above ours as the heaven is above the earth would find to interest him in the tuneless squawkings of a hall full of ten-year-olds. When I put the question to the parish vicar, Reverend Littleworth, he referred me to Mr. Dunstable for a beating.
But this song, the song that’s playing now, is different. As far as the heaven is above the earth, so far is the conviction in this song above those we used to sing. It is a song, primarily, about death; and that’s really what all of religion boils down to, isn’t it? What to do about death; how to face it; how to survive it. Because if there’s one thing scientists will never be able to explain, it’s what happens after we die. What happens to that part behind the eyes that fears death more than disability or pain. What happens when the neurons stop transmitting and the electrical charge in our brains registers as zero, and the process of cellular degeneration accelerates into certain decay. Do we linger? Does the soul pass over into another life? Are we judged by a supreme being, or are we reborn to live again?
Another quote comes to me, another of the songs from my youth: Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.
Will that happen to me, I wonder? Will time bear me away, through death and into eternity, to be forgotten by the people I knew? At a certain point it stops being about religion and just comes down to the primal dichotomy: life and death, and what we do about it.
Because the short, brutal answer is: there’s nothing we can do.
The song comes to an end, and in the few seconds of silence between tracks I hear the echo of her voice, trailing the last few notes away into darkness.
At least I am not alone.
After a week, we begin to talk.
Going is slow at first — she is scared, and suspicious, and she still believes I am one of them. But, like me, she is starved of human contact, and the prospect of a voice — any voice — is something she cannot ignore.
We make a bargain: I will play her religious songs, if she agrees to talk to me. I promise I will not ask about who she is, or where she is from; our conversation will be light, meaningless, vapid. We will talk of the weather, of old acquaintances, of places we have been and meals we have eaten, of sights and smells and sounds long since withered into the withered husk of a memory. We will remind each other of such things as what it is like to walk in the sun, to drink coffee in a café, to watch birds in the park, to sit by the sea, to eat popcorn in a darkened cinema, to work in an office with colleagues and computers and the all-important water cooler. I can no longer picture any of these things, but her words are soothing to me, and they stir within me some ghost of a memory, so that I know that they are familiar even if they are not remembered.
I tell her my name, and she tells me hers: Mary. It is a good name, I say, though I have no idea whether it is or not. It is the only name beside my own that I remember now — for this reason alone, it is good.
We talk — or rather, she talks, and I listen, straining my imagination to visualise the scenes she describes; but my colours have all faded, and the world of my past is a hazy fog of grey. I remember the fact of the matter, rather than the thing itself. I know, for example, that I had a job before this place, and that it was as a guard in an office. But which office, and where, and who my colleagues were, and what I did day to day — these things are gone forever.
I remember that I went to school, and the kinds of song we used to sing — but not the words, nor the faces of my classmates. If I try to visualise them they emerge amorphous from the haze, and I flinch away from the memory.
So we talk, and I play her religious songs, and we form a kind of bond. But still she keeps her distance. There are some things she will not speak of: family, for one, or her home. She will not speak of the specifics of her job. She remembers far more than me, but she is holding it back. She is guarding herself from me, and I suppose she still suspects me of being one of them.
Our conversations begin to stir something deep within me, something I thought had been lost forever. I begin to yearn to feel the sun again, to hear the sound of traffic and smell the smog of the city. When I fall asleep at night I strain to dream myself into that bright waking world, and when I wake my heart twists with the bitterness of my reality.
Slowly, but surely and steadily, I begin to think of escape.