By Nancy Zhang
In the blackness a spot of light appeared. Holding steady in the nothingness, it grew rounder, brighter. A lighthouse in the dark. It reached her night ship in undulating waves, stretching glittering across the white sea. Stronger than time, it pulled her across the glassy surface, while sea and night folded into each other around her, dissolving; the light grew louder, clearer, bolder. And she realised it was not light but a sound – a ringing sound.
She sat up in bed clammy with sweat, matted hair pasted to her forehead. The phone was ringing again – who was it? She scrambled out of bed. The curtains were drawn but sunlight was barging in around the edges. Her tiny white room was almost completely lit. It must be noon. She hurriedly straightened her clothes, reached for the door and slipped out onto the cold landing. How long had she slept?
The phone was on a stand in the front hallway downstairs. But it was silent. She didn’t know whether it stopped ringing just before she got there, or had never rung at all. She stood bewildered for a moment, then went back to her room. In this shared house, she never knew which calls were for her, but she was waiting – possibly for a call she could not afford to miss.
Back in her room, she opened the curtains. Another fine, windless day. It was past noon on a Friday. If it hadn’t been for the ringing, she might have slept another three hours. In a few hours, the week would have slipped through the gaps in her mind to lie in a pile at her feet. She had a job to find, a life to start; she was going somewhere.
She had always been productive; sometimes even obsessive. She imposed structure on things so that achievements could be documented and measured against their maximum potential. So she could not understand why she found it difficult to remember if she had been here one month or two, or really, what she had done for the past week or fortnight. She fought the urge to stop differentiating between day and night. But increasingly her routine dissolved and came to consist of waking up later and later, swimming up to consciousness - just in time to see the day slip into night again.
Today, though, was different. Today wouldn’t get away from her. She was awake now; she had it by the tail and she was going to do something. A pile of papers was stacked on the corner of her desk. Her tiny box room contained exactly a bed, a window, a desk under that window and a chair before the desk. Her few belongings, the bare essentials, were placed strategically around the bare room. She did not know where she was going but, equally, she did not know how long she would stay and so she travelled light, with the complete minimum.
She sat down at her desk to deal with the papers: they were job applications in different stages of completion. It was the first time she had looked at them in a fortnight. She realised that most of the finished ones were done when she first got here, when she had been confident of her ability to impose that structure that had always served her well. She started the project with determination, setting out to build a vast scaffolding wrapped around a crumbling mansion. But somehow the scaffolding had decayed and blown away. There were more and more blank spaces in the later applications, spelling mistakes she had never made before, and one even ended mid-sentence. The last five applications were completely empty.
She stared at the papers for a long time. She had never ‘half-finished’ anything before. But, now, black letters stumbled over themselves and dropped off a cliff into a sea of white paper. The space where words should have been burned through her retina. Day fell to dusk outside; her pen slowly lowered over the page.
Try as she might, she found, she was no longer the same person who started that sentence (she did not know how long ago). She could not describe herself in the same way, any more – as a woman having the skills, experience and desire to fill that position. She felt like a fraud. The whole process was one long promise. But how could she make promises when she knew nothing for certain, not even how long she had been awake?
She put away the half-finished application and picked up a completely empty page. She would start again. Though she could not remember the past, there was still the present and a future. She would describe herself as she was now; where she was going. Pen poised; ink dripped onto paper.
What she needed to find, she thought, must be in her mind. Black bled into white crevices, spreading. She searched them, the spaces without walls, methodically and meticulously from the inside out; she pulled out handfuls of translucent ideas, as yet unformed. Navy infiltrated the sky. Stars burst onto the night stage.
She put the pen down. The night was fine and cool outside and she had an unbearable urge to reach out and touch it. The complete clarity of this thought held steady in her mind and grew rounder, brighter, pushing out all contenders. She took the only thing she had for certain - the finished applications - and set them aside in a separate pile. She folded them carefully, put them into envelopes and printed an address onto each one. Then she got dressed and went out in the cold to mail them.
From outside, the house looked bigger than she remembered. Against the dimming sky, it could have been a mansion; its enigmatic outline hiding spikes and jagged turret-like angles. The further she walked away from it, the better she knew it. When she turned to look again, it was not from a physical distance but from the superior vantage of a more comfortable future self.
Time and space folded upwards to meet its future mirror image so that, as she stood there, she recalled rather than saw. From the safety of that distance in experience, she remembered fondly how it wasn’t just one house but a whole row, ordinary on the outside, but secretly linked by a network of tunnels underground. Nostalgically, she thought the houses were playing a permanent trick on the world. Winking, they linked hands behind their backs and read each other’s minds. Many people have lived there but they were never in on the joke; however many passed through, each one was just another stranger.
When she turned back again, the present hit her in the face with a coldness so bitter it made her eyes water. The irresistible night had retreated behind a glass ceiling: visible but unreachable. Though the post box was only a short walk away, each step felt like a plough through snow. Tears ran down her cheeks and froze. She seemed to be moving slower and slower, on a path she had traced out so many times before, until she came to a standstill.
She was in front of the red letterbox, where two roads crossed, pathetically relieved to have made it just twenty yards from the house. But, just as she lifted up her hands holding the letters and pushed them through the slit, she felt something twist and time pleated again into overlapping waves that pierced through each other into one continuous corridor. Suddenly, she was sure that her actions now were merely an echo of an identical action she had performed at the same mailbox, with possibly the same stack of envelopes, not long ago. It was too late to stop it: she had already let go and the letters fell - all over again - into the bottom of the mailbox, reverberating back through the ages, potentially undoing what had been done before, taking her to the start of the journey rather than the end. She stood there struggling to think.
If the applications had already been sent in a distant past, then everything she had done today was a waste of time. The real question: Why hadn’t she heard anything back yet? What’s the hold up? She should contact those she had already written to. She had some calls to make. She turned and went back to the house.
Going back turned out to be much easier than going forwards. In no time at all she pushed through her front door into the hallway, lit by neon lights and almost too bright. There she found Piotr, the Polish house manager, crouched in front of a metal box mounted low on the wall. It was open and he was shining a torch into the tangled mass of wires inside. Small and plump, Piotr took up most of the room in the narrow hallway while crouched. When she appeared, he stood up and swept his neat blond hair back to one side. His eyes held a permanent look of concern. He wore a clean, carefully laundered shirt but after a long day sweat was showing through in patches.
“Ah yes… you are here. No heating – you see, maybe an hour, maybe three,” he said, his politeness held together by broken English. “Or tomorrow I come back.” His eyes –anxious and concerned at the same time- searched her face in short, furtive bursts before looking away. ‘Piotr, where is the outgoing phone – is it working?’ she said, the night and the cold flanking her, making her glow. Piotr, his sad blue eyes two translucent pools, answered, ‘yes, yes, down there. Turn left.’
He stared after her as she pushed past him; eyebrows slanting downwards, palms turned upwards in an eternal gesture of resignation. She left him as she went around the uneven sides of the oddly shaped hallway, past all the doors leading off it that were shut and silent, to the last door at the back leading down to the basement knitting the row of houses together. It was a firedoor and the heaviest of them all, made of mysterious, indestructible materials. She pushed it open. A steep staircase was on the other side, leading down into darkness. The area was precariously lit by two naked, yellowing bulbs.
She went down awkwardly and groped along, turning on lights to reveal more yellowish stretches of basement. The corridors were narrow and bounded by thick walls, separated at short intervals by more firedoors. The doors creaked and sighed when they were opened, making the naked lightbulbs sway in their sockets, throwing soft shadows in circles around the walls. With each movement the doors protested by slamming shut with a loud bang behind the intruder. A faint antiseptic smell mixed with that of damp rising from the ground.
She thought she knew this area well. The shared kitchen and some of the bathrooms were down here and she had to find her way around here almost every night - but somehow it was trial and error every time. She had used the phone before - it was somewhere in the opposite direction to the kitchen, and that’s where she headed.
She went through one door and down a few meters of corridor. She came to a bathroom and a small corridor with two other doors leading off it. She chose one and pushed her back against its reluctant heaviness. She turned into a gaping room lined with cupboards, fridges and cookers; wires ran up and down the walls. The smell of bleach was strong here. The poker-faced cupboards held back mountains of pots and pans and decaying food. It was the kitchen.
This can’t be right, she thought, it should be on the other side. She backtracked along the way she came, past the two entrances and then the bathroom. There, remembering Piotr’s words, she turned left. Down a different section of yellowish basement, through another bulky firedoor, she came to what looked like the bottom of another house. It wasn’t what she remembered but she carried on - left again. A new intersection of corridors with several doors clustered around a hexagonal space. It felt really wrong now, like she was really off-track; she pushed the feeling down. First left, again.
She came up dead against a firedoor standing with its back to her, tall and wide. She pushed on it with all her strength and stumbled suddenly onto the other side. The door shut loudly and resentfully behind her pushing her further forward into a slightly wider, white corridor. There, in the middle, was a sealed booth with the phone inside.
She walked towards it, hands sweaty. An unknown fear was rising up in her throat. What was she going to say? What would she find when she reached out? But when she reached out to open the door of the booth, she found it was locked from the inside. Someone was already in there: an abundant, voluminous entity, their bulk stuffed the space full of flesh and breath, warming the metal frame. She could see an outline of a dark head in a narrow rectangular glass panel at her eye level, it was bobbing up and down, talking.
Suddenly, now, she had no doubt about what she had to say and wanting to say it. She reached for the handle again and shook it, once, twice, clattering the metal frame and puncturing the soft silence of the basement with violent stabs of sound. The head stopped and turned, a pair of dark eyes rotated into view through the glass panel. They stared at her for a long glutinous minute, fat and glassy, like their owner. The eyes sized her up and put her down and then they rotated glibly around and out the other side of the panel. The dark head came back into view and it went on bobbing, talking. The wounds she made in the silence closed up again and everything was smooth once more.
She paced around, agitated. She went back to the booth. She put her hand on the handle to shake it again, to make some kind of dent on that copious presence inside, and pull it out. She imagined its fat coils unwinding and slithering out of the booth.
But just then, with her hand on the handle, the sensation she had had at the mailbox boomeranged back to her. She saw time sweep in front, around and above her in one continuous spiral that extended indefinitely forwards, in front of her, and backwards, behind her. She looked up and saw, directly above, a mirror image of herself at a corresponding time in the past when, just as clearly as she was, here, standing outside the booth, she was, then, standing inside the booth. One hand was on the receiver pressed against her face and the other hand was slotting coins into the payphone; she was speaking into the receiver, her eyes on the quickly disappearing credit; as she struggled to formulate her message and send it out, the coins ran out; and she was confronted with a dead tone in the receiver, mid-sentence.
The phone had had the last laugh in either case. She realised this. One way or another, she would not get what she came for. She stepped back from the booth.
She was strangely shaken. She had to get some air, she couldn’t stay in that white corridor and its padded silence anymore. The smell of disinfectant rose in her lungs. She pushed through a door on her right, which banged shut knowingly behind her. The corridor she found herself in was dank with mould; shadows circled softly from the commotion. She walked quickly forward and went through two more doors, past stretches of basement with wires running along the tops of the walls.
Finally she stepped out into a corridor where a high vent near the ceiling let in the night. The sumptuous night seeped in and cut through the mould and bleach. She breathed in deep. She remembered again the sky’s dome outside; it seemed like an eternity since she was under its domain. She looked up at the vent and tried to peer through its slats to the outside. The dense slats slanting downwards hid almost everything from view. All she could make out, through a tiny crack between them, was the glint of one or two yellow pinprick stars.
She felt calmer. It made no sense, she decided, what she had been doing. It was ridiculous. She just had to go back there and wait until that person was finished, that was all. After another few minutes she headed back.
Trying to retrace her steps, she went back via the doors she had just passed through. But instead of arriving back in the wider, white corridor, she found herself in a corridor with sallow-coloured walls. Wires ran along the bottom of the wall, up around the frame of the door behind her, and along the wall on the opposite side; they extended on both sides indefinitely forwards into the darkness. She had never seen this part of the basement before. She must have missed the turning – though she was sure she hadn’t. She turned left. Through another firedoor, she went down a passage with a bathroom opening off it. A few steps further, she found herself in a small hallway with stairs leading straight up into darkness.
It looked like the stairs she had used to come down into the basement. But on closer inspection, she noticed the balustrades were slightly more aged, the naked yellow bulbs a fraction dirtier and there were differently-shaped stains on the walls: it was not the same staircase. She must be under a different house. Possibly she was a few doors along given how long she had been lost - but she couldn’t be sure. So she went up the stairs to check.
She opened what looked like the same door in her house at the back of the hallway and came into an almost identical hallway, neon-lit. She walked forward to the front door and opened it: No.6 it said on the plaque. She had started at No.3. She must have passed the phone without knowing it, which was in the vicinity of No.4 or 5. She went back down to the basement, noticing on the way that the hallway of No.6 was subtly different from No.3 in the placement of a notice slightly higher or lower, or a microscopically different tone of buzzing from the glowing lights.
Underground again, she backtracked, pushing backwards with her weight through two more firedoors, which grudgingly gave way. She walked past a five-sided intersection and a kitchen and stepped into another hallway that looked familiar. She must have passed through at least one house by now and should be in the right area. But the phone and its booth were nowhere to be found. Instead, she rounded a corner and came upon another set of stairs leading straight up into the darkness.
She thought she might have overshot, having lost count of how many houses she had passed underneath - but she couldn’t be sure. So she went up the stairs again to check. Arriving in another hallway, she walked forwards through the too-bright hallway and opened the front door: No.2.
She was growing tired but determined to find the phone. She thought she knew exactly where she went wrong, it really wasn’t far away. So she went back down to the basement and set off again. But at every turn she was confronted with the same firedoors slamming, the yellow naked lightbulbs buzzing, and multi-sided intersections bounded by thick, identical walls. Once, she even passed a slightly wider, white corridor that looked like where the phone had been – but it was empty.
The numbingly cold night seeped in through every wall-crack and high-up vent. Her fatigue grew and reached into her bones. Having criss-crossed the basement – she lost count of how many times – she had ended up here, somewhere in the middle.
Much of the night must have passed and she could hardly keep her eyes open. Finally, heavily, she made her way up for the last time. The door on the ground floor gave way gladly this time with a gentle creak that sounded much like laughter. There was a comfortingly familiar pitch of neon buzzing and a welcoming smell of disinfectant: it was her house - No.3. Through the window above the front door she saw an orange tinge. It must be dawn. There was no sign of Piotr or the hole he had opened in the box on the wall. Everything was smooth and white once more.
It must have been fixed, she thought with overwhelming tiredness. She could not find the strength to climb another set of stairs. With difficulty, she made it to the bottom of the stairs leading up to her room and sank down onto the bottom step. She faced the window and the stand on which sat the phone for incoming calls, as real and solid and available as the house itself. She gave up then and gave in. She sat by the incoming phone, waiting.
Her eyes slowly closed. The exhaustion was the most comfortable thing she had ever embraced. It was a stream winding all the way back to the beginning. She had always been tired. The appearance of dawn didn’t fill her with energy: it drained her to think of everything she had to do.
She fell and hit the ground running. It was rough, rocky terrain. Boulders fell away on either side until, suddenly, she at a precipice. There she divided into two. One person leapt clear off the edge and into the dark; the other stopped dead at the precipice and looked down: she was not yet ready to decide. Wherever one was, whatever she did, she was distracted, divided. She looked backwards, or forwards, searching for the other, wondering: what would she have done? Who could she have been? And so in the time that others lived one life, she had lived two. Now that person, undecided at the precipice, meandered back to the most comfortable exhaustion, where she settled on the bottom step, and waited.
The ringing cut through her dreams and jolted her awake. The harsh sound seemed too big for the hallway. She hastened up from the step where she had fallen asleep. It was the call she was waiting for. She picked up the receiver.
‘Hello,’ a deep voice said. ‘I’m looking for Mihai’. ‘Oh’, she answered, disappointed. Mihai was a Bulgarian builder living in the room opposite the phone. He had dirty brown hair and was never home but apparently had a lot of calls.
‘He’s not home.’
‘Well, that’s too bad. I had a message.’
‘Yes, too bad,’ she rubbed her eyes with the back of a hand, stiff from a night spent on the stairs and eager to get away. She was about to put the receiver down to avoid taking the message when the voice quickly interjected, ‘So you will do.’
‘To you, the bold searcher who embarks with cunning sails on terrible seas - because where you can guess, you hate to deduce – to you alone I tell the riddle, the vision of the loneliest.’
Static crackled thickly down the line. She saw a voice hanging in mid-air, widening into a crooked grin. She slammed the phone down. But it was too late - she had already got the message.
She turned and wearily made her way up the stairs. She caught sight of the window – still orange outside; she wondered if it was dawn or dusk. With each step up, she shook out a little more of the stiffness of the cold and uncomfortable night. Even the air became lighter and easier to breathe as she ascended.
At the landing she met Piotr coming down from the floor above. She searched his face for that never-ending concern. His hair was swept to one side, but perhaps, this time, the other side. His shirt was neatly laundered but it hung awkwardly on his bulk. She started to ask him about the boiler. He looked surprised at her question, two pools of blue grew sadly translucent, ‘No, I –no problem. It is warm, no?’ he shrugged, hands open, palms upwards. ‘I just get here. Nobody told to me problems - why?’
But then she remembered a more urgent question – where was the outgoing phone? Why had it moved? She described to him how she had searched all night, all along the row of houses. She asked him to repeat his directions.
Piotr looked at her with a careful curiosity. Studying her like a strange and endangered animal, he answered, ‘there is no phone yet. I will install it… maybe… soon.’ He searched her face in short, furtive bursts but looked away at her disbelieving stare. He turned and scurried down the stairs, leaving her with a few, anxious backward glances.
She went on to her room, still thinking about the conversation. As she reached out her hand towards her door, distracted, she missed the subtle distortion in the narrow landing behind her. It had been slowly stretching, melting into time’s continuous corridor. Suddenly, she realised, she was standing in front of one door out of many. Footsteps – her own steps - reverberated down the ages. She opened the door - and stepped into the night she arrived at the house.
She looked around the familiar scene. Outside the window it was dark and deep into the night. A bare mattress lay on top of the bed. Two small suitcases stood in the middle of the otherwise bare room. Her few belongings were inside those suitcases, not yet unpacked.
She was a philosophy student, recently graduated. That first night she had been too tired to eat or wash or unpack. That night the only thing she took out of the suitcases was a book, which she read on the bare mattress until she fell asleep. She went over to the bed and there, in the corner closest to the window, a book lay open face down. She turned it over and read, ‘the philosopher is a person untied - from society, from reality, from the reality that everyone holds to be true.’
She got up onto the bed and curled up again around the book; moonlight slanted in diagonal strips across her face and onto the mattress. She found again a soft, familiar dent she had made for herself not long ago. The first night she had not understood why, just then, a warm tear had appeared in her left eye, spilled over and wound its way down her cheek. Now as the tear retraced its path, evaporating slowly from the heat of her skin, she looked back to the present from the vantage point of a wiser present self.
Her obsessive productiveness was a glamorous ocean cruiser bound for far off destinations. But she had jumped back into the water and swam back to shore, every time.
Now, this night, she found she no longer fit into the dent she had left. She could not stay still; she could not sleep; she had never been more awake. The moon with her train of stars shone almost as bright as day. She looked up with naked eyes and saw complete clarity for the first time. The minimum was complete.
She got up and felt energy prickling her fingers. She started to unpack, erasing that first night and forcing time to fork into millions of new paths. She placed her meagre belongings around the room and put away the suitcases. The last thing she took out was a small, black-rimmed clock. She looked at its face expectantly. The clock was blank except for two hands pointing straight up to the number 13. She had found it: a new hour. It was a parcel of time outside the usual allocation – time that was not accounted for. She had to think carefully about what to do with it.
After a while, she went out onto the landing, down the stairs to the hallway. She picked up the receiver on the incoming phone sitting on its stand. She searched its smooth underside until her fingers raised a bump in the metal surface that formed eventually into a button. She pressed it - and dialled out.
Nancy Zhang lives in London and works in business intelligence. She was previously a journalist in Shanghai. She writes fiction and poetry in her spare time.