My eyes snapped open and I was fully awake. The room was quiet but I felt the tension in the tingling darkness. Something was holding its breath. I listened intensely, and when I had filtered out the hiss of silence in my skull, I heard it. There was a whispering in the attic above me. My bed was raised to a few feet beneath the ceiling, and I clearly heard fluttering curses as the thing over my head tried to climb out of the box. Mixed in with the angry whispers was a rustling of tinsel and paper as it tried to disentangle itself. Then the noises stopped. It had got out.
I lay as still as a corpse, scarcely breathing, listening. Silence. Perhaps I had dreamed it. After a few moments, I began to relax. My eyes had adjusted to the gloom, and the solid join of ceiling and walls reassured me. For a minute or so, nothing. But then the space beneath my ribcage turned to ice and sheer terror dug fingers into my windpipe. Behind me, scraping and urgent thudding from behind the wall; the rats were leaving the attic in a mad panic. Eyes locked rigid on the wall to my side, I saw the first spiders and insects race down it from a gap in the ceiling, then more and more followed so the wall ran like a black waterfall.
I knew what it meant. I was frozen with fear. An intolerable pressure grew in my chest as it tried to scream and shriek but my lungs were frozen by dread. Inside me, five snakes tied by their tails above my groin shot through my arms, my legs, my brain. Twisting, jerking, convulsing, the knot in my belly snapped and an uninterrupted scream howled from my writhing body.
Lights came up, the bed was lowered. Greens and Blues surrounded me, and held me down. They cooed and murmered as they lay upon me soft, cool hands. A centre of my being glowed from sharpness in my arm as liquid heat dissolved the ice and spread through all of me and grew beyond me. The squirming snakes inside became one thick serpent that shot through the crown of my skull, arced into a a circle with its tail before dissolving in my brain. In the pink walled room a peacefulness begat a calm-sinking into heavenly sleep.
I woke in a different room. On a bed next to me lay a tin coffin. My father sat up from it and grinned at me. His head was steel, his eyes were glass, but the leering mouth was filled with a shimmering dazzle of blue electricity. He jerked one rigid finger up in a gesture of contempt and wicked promise. Then he delved into the coffin and threw at me streams of silver tinsel, gaudy paper streamers, fairy lights so I was buried in them. And when I so lay, the horror found its centre: he thrust out towards me in evil triumph the dreadful icon. In his fierce grip, its dead eyes blank and empty, the awful flat roundness of the pink man’s head.
I howled uninterrupted scream, and Greens and Blues did dandle me to calm. Again I slept, four days and nights they gave the balm of sleep, and when I woke it was the grey room on floor forty four. Some blue ones washed me with pink soap that smelled of disinfectant, then they spread pink antiseptic unguent over the deep cuts where I had scratched myself, and the abrasions left by my father’s belt. When I was clean they took me to the man in the office. He told me I was nearly well. He said they would let me go in a few days when they were sure I was better.
Everything felt a bit too normal for me. Over the next days I was upset that the Blues smiled at me too much. I was allowed to walk down a few corridors as far as the doors, but wherever I went the place seemed to be holding its breath. The night before I was due to leave, I was drifting off to sleep, my eyes on the square of light coming through the window on the door. Suddenly and horribly, a face appeared, a pink bald head leered and sneered at me and then was gone. Paralysed with panic, I knew what I had to do.
They had left my clothes for the morning. Quietly I pulled on shirt, pants and shoes. Taking a couple of pounds in coins from the pockets, I stuffed the coat, jacket and pyjamas under the blankets to look like a sleeping figure. I safely crossed the empty corridor to the toilet. Using one of the coins, I unscrewed the ventilation grille near the floor, and crawled carefully backwards into a space just large enough for me. With difficulty, it was possible to manouvre the grille so that it leaned against the aperture, and I hoped nobody would notice that it had been unscrewed.
The shaft sloped downwards. It was hot and dry, and using my feet to push myself, I became covered in dust. Soon my head slid onto the flat passage of a wider section that ran left to right. I was able to crawl forwards on hands and knees along the left hand tunnel which was towards the front of the building. After passing several smaller branches of the shaft system, I paused to rest. A scattering of small metallic noises mixed with the continuous whirring of the airflow. Once I heard a distant burst of laughter. Moving on, the air suddenly cooled to my left, and I followed a narrow passage which came to a dead end, a large grille. Through it there was a weak light and a refreshing rush of colder air. I kicked hard aginst the grille a couple of times and it flew off, a few seconds later landing with a clatter below me.
Then I peered through the gap, looking up then down a lift shaft. In both directions light filtered in from vents above the door to each floor. The roof of the lift cage was seven floors below me. I could hear tics and clicks, and the occasional voices from up and down, then the shaft throbbed with sound as the lift began ascending. It passed me and the massive counterweights opposite sank on their well oiled tracks. Maybe an hour passed, the lift passing me several times up and down. Then at last it stopped so that its roof was eighteen inches below my body. As carefully as I could, I slid down and across the heavy girders that formed the cage. There was an inspection hatch which I lifted a half an inch. Light flooded out of the empty lift.
I replaced it and lay there for ten minutes until I heard the doors slide open. I peeped through the edge of the hatch and saw two pink men with shaven heads wheeling a deep tray full of newborn piglets . From my position I could only see the tops of their heads, the brutal architecture of their skulls. Then the lift descended. I counted thirteen floors.
There was no point trying to leave at any floor apart from the basement or sub-basement, as there would be pink men everywhere. I lay curled up as the lift moved through the night, never descending to my destination. I felt safe, almost confident, and certainly more alive than I had been for a long time, there among the solid iron safe on its rigid tracks. I dozed off and dreamed as I rose and fell.
The lift moved sideways and changed tracks then swooped downwards gathering speed until it was racing through blue daylight and fields. The distant sparkling sea grew closer and closer, and we were gliding through the deep waters until at a city of twinking lights deep on the floor of the ocean, we slid between stars and forests of coral. A lurch, an overturning stomach and we shot upwards through a black tube until we reached the roof of the mountain city, all glass and jewelled windows in clear blue air, then down and lurching through the gut into the ground again, and sideways over networks of points, below criss-crossing bridges of high speed capsules, through conveyor belts of thousands of people, and escalators stretching in every direction further than the eye could see. Someone was telling me that my bed was full of lychees, and my stomach lurched as a sudden descent pulled me through rubber tubes and glass cylinders to the waiting room of a hospital pharmacy.
I woke. The lift had stopped. Looking through the grille onto the corridor I saw two pink men waiting for the doors to open. They were wheeling a tin coffin. They got in the lift and we sank further. I saw the wide reception floor pass us and knew that we were underground. When the lift stopped and the two pink men left with the tin coffin I waited a few moments, then cautiously dropped into the lift through the hatch. I hid in a cupboard until they returned and got in the lift, then I followed the direction they had taken with the coffin and found the mortuary.
Carefully, I looked through the window into the mortuary. Seven or eight pink men, these all with identical goatee beards, were engaged in sorting and classifying incoming corpses prior to their being entered into the refrigerated filing cabinets. I passed on down the corridor until I reached its locked doors at the end. In the dispatch room to my right, five tin coffins were waiting for collection by undertakers when the working day began. One was labelled Sister Agatha Holloway for collection by SpeedyCrem Limited. I opened the lid, and removed a very emaciated body dressed in habits. This I hung among the overalls in the mortuary technicians’ rest room next door, then I climbed into the empty coffin, closed the lid and waited.
I found the smell in the coffin very offensive but it helped keep me awake to hatch a plan. About an hour later, there were deep honking voices outside then the rattling of chains and screeching of the outer doors being slid open. Some more thick honking and bellowing which may have been laughter, then the coffin shook and rattled as it was wheeled into the back of the SpeedyCrem van.
It proceed up the ramps of the underground machinery of the hospital, and when it halted I knew we were at a security barrier, then we drove on to the main road. I lifted the coffin lid a few inches. In front of me the hard pink heads of driver and mate, bulbous and smooth as bullets. The thick creases at their fat necks looked like their brains were growing outside of their skulls on the stalk of the spine.
Less than half a mile down the road we came towards a major road junction where the traffic is always slow moving or stopped by red lights. As carefully as I could, I raised the lid of the coffin and sat up. The driver saw me in his rearview mirror, and without turning his head, said, “Hey, Mugsy. The stiff is getting out the coffin.” His mate replied, staring straight ahead, “Not our fucking problem, mate. Just say we didn’t see nothing.”
Grateful for their complicity, I gave the driver a thumbs-up as I climbed out of the box. Then I pushed open the rear doors, stepped into the road and made my way to the pavement.
During the six months I had been away, little seemed to have changed. The pavement was hard and inevitable, the buildings worn out with standing. In the yellow bus shelter, a party of drinkers with green bottles and golden cans, some with dripstands and others in hospital gowns, were different from six months ago, but it was the same party. Two of them were pink men, and they glared at me as I hurried past. I heard them laughing viciously.
My heart was tight with fear and my guts were churning cold. I made it as far as the Happy Shopper Emporium and ducked inside. The place was teeming with pink men buying supplies of cargo shorts, big stripey T shirts and flip flops. I only had a few pounds, and I was feeling dizzy, terrified and sick, so I grabbed anything I could use for a disguise, and just about paid for it without passing out. In a nearby public convenience, I quickly put on my new pink jumpsuit, a few painted gold trinkets and chains, and a plastic union jack bowler hat which I tucked my hair into.
I checked in the remaining piece of mirror. After half a year without sunlight my face was like cold rice pudding that jam had been mixed into, a weak pink with bright red blotches and veins. I would pass.
Outside, I felt safer; no one looked at me. I was hungry so spent my last pound on a ham bap. I sat on a little stone bench outside the Emporium and tried to think but I couldn’t so I just looked. Tired out of thought, I became the looking, mingled into the pink families about their shopping. Little pink babies in prams clutching little pink bunnies, older ones with shiny balloons in the shape of the pink man, all round and chubby, mums with candyfloss hair and strawberry swirl eyes. A family sat on the bench with me. The young boy, he was three or four, looked up at the deep blue sky and said, “Mum, what’s up there?” and she said, “Fuck off and leave me alone.” and gave him a packet of sweets. They had a big bottle of water. I was thirsty and they gave me drink. The man gave me a cigarette too.
I walked down the hill. The genius of the pink man is that he is everywhere and nowhere. A toothache, or any ache, or any pain might flatter itself that it is unique, but it isn’t. So too, each pink man is made of different stuff, even woman stuff. Some wear only a bit of pink, maybe just a wristband, others are clearly, nakedly pink. Like, down past the chemist shop where the merry pink men flutter and are gone so fast you think you imagined them. Thin and spiney, dressed all in pink, tights and tunic, caps and even shoes, they communicate with birdsong or whistling snatches of tunes, like Greensleeves. They walk as fast as scissors, always on their way, never getting there.
Down the hill the pink current meets the currents of other colours. None of them notice each other, they pass through each other: the blue steel certainty of success, the grey defeat of leaking towards death, the sparkling white eyes of the protected young who believe the world is innocent. In the great hall of the station I met the eye of a man in a pink shell suit. His face was broken but sharp with life and he smiled a recognition at me, as if to say you have to be anyone to be someone. I thought, God bless the pink man.
And in the streets again, leading to the market, even the grey, hard, inevitable pavements seemed to sigh in a longing to be submerged in water, and the weary buildings with their pink, or blue, or black, or grey, or red coverings seemed to ache in their brick bones to just lie down and dissolve forever into forgetful sleep.
Through the market, with its pink icing cakes and pink haunches of meat, I emerged at the base of the new town rising above. The city of light built on glass stilts that were cylinders for glass elevators; and everywhere, at crazy diagonals, silver escalators disappearing into the heaven of designer retail outlets, and cosmopolitan eateries, and art galleries. I kept on down hill, through the husks of the older time, shadows within shadows, shades within shades, kept on, deep down the hill, through deserted history, through emptiness.
Near the river, I walked along the mile of high iron railings that guarded the superliner terminal. I came to a small opening I had feared may have disappeared, but it was still there and led me to a small section of the old quayside. Cobblestones covered in moss beneath my feet seemed rich and happy, like an old person’s contentment when they have seen through things. And I walked to the wooden landing stage, still there, untouched because useless.
There were thick wooden steps leading down into the green water that sucked and slapped around the stanchions of the pier. I took off all my clothes, and walked into the water. It rose above my legs to my groin that would not know pleasure, then my belly that ached in its emptiness, and around my breasts that had no love to pour out. The shock of cold turned my body hard, cold and hard, rising and falling on the waves, caught in the current, cold and hard, cold and hard as plastic, like an empty skin of plastic, an empty wrapping light as litter blowing where no ever comes.
The tide was flowing full as I got carried away from the pier, away from the sea. Before me the sky was a black wall and I saw the huge bulk of the hospital on its hill set in that wall. My hair spread out in front of me like a yellow fan. I dreaded that I was being pulled into everlasting darkness. But then a wind blew from out of the darkness. What earth was left of me dispersed like dust; the heat of my terror dissolved in the sun that shone above the coming storm; the air in my lungs flew upon the wind; the drops of water left in my hard body became one with the river. So light was I now, so nothing but the pink outline of a doll made of thin foil, that the wind carried me against the tide’s current. I scudded over the river, faster and faster, towards the estuary’s becoming of a final sky of ice blue emptiness and then a void.
Such dreams of being nothing, of being without value, sustain me still. On grey pavements among the weary heaviness and paint of pretence, such lightness falls that is more real than dreams. God bless the pink man, and all of us.