As a tiny contribution to keeping people entertained over the period of the Covid-19 lockdown, I thought I’d post some short stories here which in my mind are connected in some way to the theme of isolation. (The versions I’m posting here are based on my final draft MS rather than on corrected proofs, so I’m afraid there may be more typos than in the printed version.)
I will start with ‘Cellar’, the opening story from my collection Spring Tide. It’s about very extreme self-isolation, deliberately chosen. Come to think of it, a lot of my stories deal with isolation, so I’m spoiled for choice. I’ll put up another story in a day or two.
I’ve never told anyone about my cellar because I know that, as soon as I speak of it, it will cease to be truly mine. Even if issues of legal ownership were not to arise – and I’m fairly certain they would – people would want to see it, look into its origins, make it into news. I mean, good God, a thing like this could go viral, all round the world. And, even supposing that sort of media attention could in some way be avoided, my friends would certainly expect to share my find. I can imagine them now, whooping with excitement as they run up and down the stairs and along the corridors. I can almost hear them planning the parties we would have.
But that of course would be the end of everything that I most value about my cellar. If I were ever to share its secret, it would just be another bunch of rooms from that day on, however unique its construction, however mysterious its origins, however stupendous its scale. And, like so many millions of other rooms in every city and town, and in every single country all around the world, it would be given functions –storage, office space, accommodation– and be cluttered up, as other rooms are, with chairs and pictures and computers and desks and cupboards and beds and people and chitchat and TV and all the other props and rituals of that dreary and repetitive little dance that people call life. If I keep the secret, on the other hand, my cellar is something else entirely, barely of this world at all.
So I speak to no one about it, and have permanently abandoned any thought of moving anywhere else, or of embarking on any relationship which might, at some point, raise an expectation of staying over or – heaven forbid! – moving in. Not that I’ve had any interest in such relationships lately. At the beginning, before I’d completely absorbed the full implications of my discovery, I did still go out and meet with other people. I occasionally even invited friends back, getting a bit of a thrill, if I’m honest, from watching them in my little home, chatting and laughing about nothing as people do, without the slightest inkling of the vast and mysterious spaces beneath them. In fact I used to give them tours of my little house, the way you do, showing what I’d done with the various rooms –the knocked-through wall here, the clever little storage units there– just so I could listen to them coo about how spacious it was, how clever I was at making space. I had a job not to laugh out loud.
But as time went on, I became less interested in human interaction. Increasingly, when social opportunities were offered me, I turned them down and chose the cellar instead, until eventually the invitations all but died away. At one point I contemplated putting it about that I’d joined one of those secretive cults whose rules forbid fraternising with non-believers, and whose beliefs are sufficiently obnoxious to prevent anyone wanting to fraternise anyway. I thought it might be a way of putting an end to the last annoying trickle of invitations, as well as potentially embarrassing spur-of-the-moment visits, but these problems seem pretty much to have solved themselves now, leaving only the occasional irritant of telephone enquiries about my well-being from my more persistent friends.
* * *
When I bought the house, there had been no cellar mentioned in the details I received from the estate agent, and I’m quite sure the previous owner had no inkling of its existence. I myself found it purely by accident one day when I was investigating some loose boards in the middle of my living room floor.
Ever since I’d moved in, I’d been irritated by a patch of carpet there that subsided slightly when I stepped on it. However, when it actually came to it doing something about it, the annoyance those boards caused me had always seemed pretty trivial in comparison to the time and trouble that would be involved in moving the furniture and rolling back the fitted carpet. In particular, I was put off by the prospect of shifting a largish dresser which I hadn’t bothered to move even when I redecorated the room. But that particular Saturday I noticed that the wobbly board or boards had now actually stretched the carpet to the point that it never quite lay flat. Since I happened to have nothing else in particular to do that day, I decided I’d try and fix the problem right there and then.
I piled all the furniture, other than the dresser, at one end of the room. I took the drawers out the dresser and stacked them in the hallway, and then I went next door to ask my neighbour Dave if he would help me shift the dresser itself. I had to offer Dave a cup of tea after that of course, which was tiresome, and listen to him discuss the merits of the five interestingly different combinations of motorways and A-roads that he’d used over the years when visiting his in-laws in Doncaster. But when he’d finally gone – it was about 11 in the morning by then– I rolled back the carpet, identified the loose boards, and pulled them up to see what was going on. It turned out that one of the joists beneath them had at some point split with the result that it was sagging slightly in the middle, and was only held together by a couple of fibres.
All that was really needed was a little extra support at the weak point, and, since the joist was only a couple of feet above the concrete base of the house, that was a simple matter: it could simply be propped up with bricks. To make things even easier, I happened to have some bricks in my back garden, left over from building a wall, which would be more than enough for the job. I was about to go and fetch some of them when I noticed –and I could so easily have missed it!– what looked like the corner of a metal hatch in the concrete. That was unexpected. A hatch to gain access to where? I pulled up more boards to allow me to get down next to it and pull it open. Inside I found a set of descending stairs, disappearing into darkness.
I felt rather excited. It seemed I had a cellar down there which had somehow been forgotten about along the way as the house passed from owner to owner. I realised that it would be almost certainly be too damp to be of use – otherwise why would the stairs have been boarded over in the first place? – and, since I had the whole house to myself, I had no real need for extra room in any case. But there was something profoundly satisfying all the same about the idea of having more space at my disposal than I’d known about. I’d always hated clutter – that was the simple explanation for the spaciousness which my friends had always admired– and I’d always considered myself to be the polar opposite of a hoarder. The house was sparsely furnished, I didn’t collect ornaments or keep books that I’d already read, and anything I didn’t actually use anymore was promptly dispatched to the dump or a charity shop. But space I liked –you could never have enough of that– and my favourite dreams were about discovering new and unexpected rooms.
Intrigued and excited as I was, though, I did hesitate before going down the stairs. I can even remember wondering whether to go round and fetch Dave again so as to have someone with me. How I’ve changed! It seems extraordinary to me now that I could have contemplated such a thing even for a moment! But I saw things differently then and, apart from anything else, there was a vague apprehension in the back of my mind that there might be some criminal explanation for the hidden cellar. What if there were bodies down there, for instance?
After a few seconds thought, however, I decided that Dave was unnecessary and I fetched a torch and began to descend the stairs on my own. Dead bodies would certainly not be pleasant, but they did seem rather far-fetched. And if there were new rooms for me at the bottom of those stairs, I wanted a chance to savour them without dreary old Dave beside me to spoil the moment by prattling on about the various cellars he’d encountered over the years, or the relative merits of plastic membranes and waterproof rendering as a means of keeping out the damp. How different everything would have turned out if I hadn’t made this choice!
When I reached what I’d assumed to be the bottom of the stairs, I discovered to my surprise that I was still surrounded by concrete walls. It was simply a landing, and the stairs just turned and continued downwards. Even more strangely, the same thing happened another storey down: I reached a second landing, and there was still nowhere else to go but either down or back up again. Clearly this was no ordinary cellar. I must admit I began to feel rather scared, although it would have been difficult to say exactly why.
Three storeys down, further below the ground than the roof of my house was above it, things changed. I could hear the absence around me straight away and, when I pointed my torch outwards, a whole corridor revealed itself in front of me, with doors down either side. How long the corridor was I couldn’t tell at that point, but it clearly extended beyond the boundary of my house, and was too long for the beam of my small torch to reach the end of it. Sweeping the beam around me, I soon discovered that it wasn’t the only one. There were actually four corridors radiating out from the stairway at right angles to one another. I noticed a light switch in the corridor in front of me, and, not really expecting it to work, I flipped it on. To a distance of some fifty metres, the corridor was suddenly as bright as any normal well-lit room. There were blue doors down each side of it, five metres apart, and after every second door there was an opening into a side corridor. Beyond fifty metres, the lights hadn’t come on, so the corridor disappeared into darkness. I soon established that the other corridors were just the same, and flipped on lights in all of them. But there was more. The staircase continued downwards, and when I shone my torch down the narrow well, I found that, as with the corridor, it continued beyond the distance that my beam could reach.
I felt really afraid then, a strange, pure terror, as if I was in one of those nightmares where nothing actually happens except for fear. Certainly my alarm didn’t come from a sense of physical danger: there was no threat to myself that I could see. Nor did it come from a feeling that I was doing something that might get me into some kind of trouble. Why shouldn’t I descend a staircase beneath my own house? No, as I say, it was a pure terror, a distillation of terror, that arose from my complete inability to make any sense at all of what I was looking at. What possible purpose might this place have? Who could have made it? How could it possibly have remained undetected up to now, and why was it underneath my house? It wasn’t just having no answers to these questions that was frightening, it was the fact that I had no sense at all of where an answer might be found.
But it was too late to turn back. Even if I’d climbed straight back up those stairs at that point, rejoined the world above and nailed the floorboards firmly down, my house would have become an entirely different place. Until today it had been a straightforward little semi in an ordinary street, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room, but it could never go back to being that, any more than a piggybank-full of one-pound coins could ever again mean the same to a National Lottery winner. My house was a mere pimple now, a tiny outcrop, a shoebox made of bricks, perched above an enormous hidden space which –such was my modest estimate at the time– quite probably had more rooms in it than my entire street.
I was terrified and disorientated, but, even then, I sensed the possibilities. Even at that early stage, scared as I was, I had an inkling that what I was now experiencing as fear might quite readily and easily be repackaged, and be experienced instead as an intense, almost sexual, excitement.
I went to the first door on the right and, feeling rather foolish, knocked on it. There was of course no answer, but I found this in itself unnerving –it’s interesting, when you think about it, how ready we are to reinterpret simple absence as sinister brooding presence– and I stood in front of it for a full minute before I’d gathered the courage to turn the handle. The room was completely empty. I flicked on the light switch inside the door and found the walls pristine and white, the floor covered in a plain grey lino that looked as if no one had ever stepped on it. There was no furniture, no trace of human occupation, but this one room was bigger than the living room in the little house three storeys above me that I supposed was still up there, although it already seemed almost irrelevant to my life.
* * *
I stayed down there for seventeen hours in the end, without food or drink, wandering from corridor to corridor, room to room, and descending at least eight storeys below the ground without any sense that I was getting near the bottom. I became utterly enchanted, so immersed in the experience that I simply couldn’t bear to interrupt or dilute it by returning even for a short while to the ordinary little world outside. When I could no longer ignore my aching bladder, I simply pissed in the corners of rooms, making a mental note to bring down a bucket and mop.
The rooms were arranged in blocks of four surrounded by corridors, and each room was exactly the same, with white walls and grey floors. Each time I opened a door I felt a frisson of anticipation and fear, wondering whether this time there’d be something there to see. Even a piece of furniture would have been a shock, or a different colour paint, let alone a human being, another mind, sitting there quietly, waiting. But I found nothing to disturb the pristine uniformity.
I think in fact that the very absence of anything new was the thing that kept me going so long, flicking on light after light after light, opening door after door. It was maddening to think there might possibly be a room I’d not yet seen that was different from the others, but at the same time, it was actually very soothing to be finding nothing at all, to be encountering, over and over again, the same calm vacancy, the same pure space, like unused graph paper uncluttered by lines or curves. The rhythm of that, the monotony of it, even almost its tediousness strangely compelling, like popping bubblewrap, or playing a fruit machine, or reading a newspaper you’ve already read many times from one end to the other. And I think it made manageable what would otherwise have been simply too much for me to contain.
It wasn’t until 4 in the morning that I finally emerged, exhausted, dizzy with hunger, and parched with thirst. How poky my little living room seemed, with the furniture piled up at one end of it, and my own ghostly reflection looking back at me from the window whose curtains were still drawn back from the morning. How dreary and ordinary that streetlamp looked across the road, those parked cars, that hedge, that brass letterbox glinting meaninglessly in the electric light. I quickly snatched the curtains closed, then gobbled some tuna straight from the tin, with three ungarnished pieces of white bread and a warm bottle of beer.
I lay down on my bed after that, but of course I was far too agitated to be able to settle properly into sleep and, even in the short periods when I briefly nodded off, my dreams were simply a continuation of my waking experience. I was still opening doors, one after another, I was still looking into rooms. And then I’d wake and realise that it really was there, the cellar, the corridors, the empty rooms. Several times I was on the point of abandoning the idea of rest and heading back underground, but I held myself back and, about the time that daylight first began to seep in round my curtains, I finally succumbed to exhausted sleep.
I was woken at 9.30 by my neighbour Dave pounding on my front door.
“Are you alright there, mate?”
I blinked at him. He didn’t seem to notice that he’d woken me. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Only you went all quiet yesterday. I could see the hole in the floor through your window, but you didn’t seem to be there.”
“I popped out to see my mum.”
“Oh.” He stood with his mouth open for a while, staring at my face. My lie had completely floored him. “It’s just that your car was still parked on the street, and I could see your bike round the side.”
As Dave knew, my mother couldn’t drive, and she lived in a village twenty-five miles away that was ten miles from the nearest station. In fact, he’d once very obligingly given me a lift there, when my car was temporarily off the road. But I reminded myself that there wasn’t a law that obliged us to explain our travel arrangements to our next door neighbours.
“I said to Betty perhaps I should break down the door,” Dave went on after a difficult three-second pause which my explanation was supposed to have filled. “Or call the police. I was really worried about you, mate. Specially when it got dark and your curtains were still wide open. I wondered whether you’d had a fall or something. I was pretty relieved when Betty got up this morning and saw your curtains drawn. ‘Well, they couldn’t have drawn themselves, could they?’ Betty said. ‘So someone’s alive in there, for sure.’”
“I appreciate your concern, Dave, but I’m absolutely fine.”
* * *
Fine wasn’t a very accurate description of how I felt, though. I was terribly tired, and desperately agitated. What was more, though Dave had always got on my nerves, I was experiencing for the first time a whole new level of irritation that was still novel to me but was soon to become the norm in all my dealings with the outside world. As long as I was with him, I was acutely aware that every single minute the conversation lasted was a minute lost forever when I could have been under the ground, exploring the pristine spaces beneath my house.
When I’d finally managed to wrap things up with Dave, I shut the door so quickly after him that it was really more of a slam, hurried back to my living room, and was already descending the stairs when I suddenly remembered that I had friends coming for lunch.
Cursing, I climbed back out again, found my phone and called to tell them I wasn’t well.
“Oh, poor Jeremy,” exclaimed my friend Liz. “Hope you feel better soon. Anything we can do for you? Shopping or anything?”
Again, I felt that irritation. Why was she wasting my time with these trivia, when the cellar was down there waiting?
“I’ll be fine thanks,” I said and hung up, so keen to finish the call that I didn’t even take the time to say goodbye.
I was hurrying back towards the cellar, when it occurred to me that I couldn’t just leave things like this in my living room. Anyone who came to the house would immediately see the piled furniture, the rolled carpet, the big hole in the floor, and the descending stairs.
Seething with resentment at the wasted time, I drove to a builder’s merchant at a dangerous and illegal speed, bought wood, hinges and a new rug, and hurtled back again, shooting two red lights, and getting honked at angrily by other motorists. Flinging my purchases down in my hallway, I returned to the living room and moved the furniture again so I could roll up the fitted carpet and remove it altogether. My impatience seemed to give me superhuman strength and I not only shifted the dresser on my own this time, but managed to lift it right over the rolled carpet.
That done, I set to work fashioning a hinged door in the middle of my floor, which I could conceal under the new rug in case of visitors, but uncover quickly when I was alone, so as to cut delay to an absolute minimum. Through all of this I kept the curtains drawn, in spite of the sunshine outside, and in spite of the curiosity which this would inevitably arouse in Dave. God damn it, it was none of his business! I’d always hated the benign, cow-like curiosity of Dave and my other neighbours up and down the street, beaming over their garden fences as they waited to be told the identity of a weekend visitor, the reason for an unusually early departure for work or the contents of a package they’d kindly taken in for me, but up to now I’d always felt obliged to indulge it. Not any longer, I decided. There was no time.
I’m no carpenter, and I’d forbidden myself peeks until the job was properly finished, so it was after 5pm when I finally descended again into my cellar. I had an aching back and several small cuts and bruises from my furious hammering and sawing, but none of that mattered. As I put my foot on the stairs, I was in a kind of trance of anticipation at the prospect of all that space, trembling, dazed and almost floating, like an adolescent boy on the way to his very first sexual experience.
* * *
I’ve moved a few things down there over the months since then, and made a few changes. One of the rooms on the top level is now a store. I’ve left a few strategic buckets here and there: the last thing I want when I’m ten storeys or more below the world, is to have to come up to the surface to take a leak. And, in a room on the twelfth level, near to the stairs, I’ve also established a kind of base camp, with a comfortable chair, a couch, bottled water, and canned food. I can sit down there for hours quite happily, doing nothing at all other than savouring the empty, private space that I know is all around me, and listening to the extraordinary silence.
But I continue to explore as well. Lately, I’ve taken to sticking a blank post-it note on every door I enter, so that I’ll know for certain when I’ve seen them all. I’ve never yet found a room that was different in any way from any of the others – there’s never been the slightest trace of any previous occupant, or even the smallest clue as to the purpose for which all this was hollowed out– but it didn’t take me very long before I found the edges. Not counting those initial flights of stairs, the twentieth-second floor down is the bottom, and, on every level, each of the four radial corridors ends in a T-junction after thirty-five rooms. So each floor, in other words, is a grid that is seventy rooms deep and seventy rooms wide, and, since there are twenty-two floors that means that my house has in excess of 100,000 rooms: six of them above ground and the rest below. I’d once gloated over the idea that I had as many rooms as all the rest of the street put together, but that turned out to be a ridiculous underestimate. A few corridors on a single level could equal my street. In the cellar as a whole there were as many rooms as there were people in the entire city above me. Who could blame me for not wanting to go out any more, when I have so much space of my own at my disposal?
And yet I have to admit that lately I’ve started to feel that it isn’t quite enough. I still love my cellar, and I still appreciate its extent. But the limits are chafing a little. Without my having made a clear decision to do so, I’ve found myself beginning to tap on the outer walls of the perimeter corridors, listening out for the hollow sound of yet more rooms beyond the ones I’ve come to know. And then of course, there’s the possibility to consider of more even space below. Well, why not? If this is possible, then so is that.
Outside in the world under the sky, my old friends laugh and quarrel, meet and part, have babies, go to work, take their dogs for walks in the park, watch TV and go to the pub. Deep down below them, I am pulling up the lino on the bottom floor, searching for hatches that might take me through to new and untouched spaces.
Copyright Chris Beckett 2017