“This too must pass.” These words have helped me in my long ordeal. They ring in my head like a mantra almost every minute that I’m stuck here in this God-forsaken pit of a room. If I divide the days into hours and the hours into minutes and the minutes into seconds and think only of the infinitesimally small time-period that I am conscious of now, it is just bearable; in fact it becomes like any other moment in my reality – never-ending and entirely ephemeral.
Those times that I come face to face with my captors are the worst – and the best. I crave for their presence to confirm my own existence. I despise their arrogance, that they have the power to liberate me, and the power to end my life; they are my Gods. There’s the big one with the slow voice and hairy scarred hands, ‘LOVE’ it says in scruffy blue letters across one set of knuckles and ‘HATE’ it says in thick blood-red on the other.
He seems nervous today, there’s a change in the atmosphere. Instead of shoving the filthy bowl of filthy food at me and hurriedly exiting – he lingers, as if he needs to talk. Now, I have the power. I hold the bowl jealously close, pluck out the food and cram it in my mouth. I pause, gagging on a piece of what smells like raw, rotten fish, but I force it down; I must live. I grunt at him, or at the nervous eyes visible through the narrow slits in his black balaclava.
“You all right?” he asks, hoping for the usual subservient nod.
I can’t acquiesce today. Somewhere inside me, a small vestige of human spirit bursts into flame. I don’t care if he uses those bloody “HATE” knuckles on me again; I don’t care if they throw away the key and leave me to starve with the rats. A deep energy flows into my limbs and I’m up, spitting out the garbage from my mouth. When I get out, I think, I’ll never touch fish again. Mentally, I add this promise to the all the other hundreds of vows that begin with When I get out . . . even as I find my voice and scream at him with such force that he is thrown physically backwards.
“No!” I scream, “No! No! No! No! I’m not all right, you, you, you utter moron.”
He stops his involuntary backward movement and stands still and immovable, his eyes tinged with angry red. I am drained, defeated. I fall to the cold, filthy floor at his feet. I am sobbing, crying uncontrollably. Through my tears I look up and see his muscled shoulders relax, his fists unclench. He turns and leaves without a word and I hear the heavy door clanging shut.
Darkness again; darkness where I scrabble about on the floor, feeling with my numbed fingers for the food that I have so carelessly scattered. It’s a race between me and the rats. I am a rat. Soon, when I have crawled back to the stinking mattress, I fall into a crazed sleep. I dream.
I am nowhere; it is the end of the world, the end of time. I look this way and that, I see faces: my benevolent grey-haired primary school teacher, the dear old lady who wanted me to become a barrister, a politician, even Prime Minister. She believed in me once, now she stares at me in anguish. My dear husband, John, as a young man: no grey hairs, no deeply wrinkled face, no pot belly. He’s crying. He can’t see me. He’s lost in the dark. My beautiful son, Adam, grown into a cynical man, smiling at me in a sickly patronising way. I can’t go on. I want to die.
Thank God – it’s a dream, I realise, it’s not Apocalypse, it’s now, I am alive; there is hope. My eyes are used to the dark again; you see it’s not total. I smile at the shadows of the rats in the corners of my prison; they don’t give up, this is their life. I am a rat. God how I love these creatures, my brothers and my sisters. Am I cracking up? Have I gone mad?
Something has woken me; I hear their voices, the bass tones of the big one penetrating the solid door, and the high pitch of the man I have come to think of as the ‘Weasel’, which sounds like the squeals of the rats. The door opens again and he comes in furtively, inching carefully over the threshold as if he is trying to avoid disturbing me. He is clever this one, clever like a small carnivorous animal of the woods. He is careful to put his black mask on before he enters but I can see those sly features clearly: the small pointed nose, the black marbles of his eyes flicking quickly from side to side, the greasy dark hair – hopelessly out of fashion, and the big uneven teeth. I could pick him out of an identity parade if I was blindfolded.
Weasel peers at me while his eyes adjust to the gloom, he disguises his voice as he speaks. So there is still hope, they don’t want to be recognised. I will not die – yet.
“Are you all right?” asks Weasel, his voice coloured with fear. He thinks that the big man has harmed me.
He will not beat me. He will not see my despair. “Yes, yes, yes I’m fine, I’m OK, I’m all right,” I say quietly, but with strength.
Weasel sighs relieved and backs out of the door closing it gently. I wait for the sound of the bolts to signal that I am safe again, secure in my foetid womb where I can relax and indulge in my nightmares. All is silent, quiet minutes pass. They’ve forgotten, I think, forgotten to bolt the door. No! the inner voice says, they are waiting outside with baseball bats, waiting for me to poke my head out like an impatient rabbit, waiting to club me into the bliss of death. I cower in my corner for ever. No! I must conquer this apathy. This too must pass, and it will pass one way or another, it must end, in death or in liberty. Somehow emboldened, I don’t care. I roll off the mattress, stand up and reach for the door; it’s not locked.
I stagger out, no bats, no weasels, no HATE knuckles. It’s an abandoned factory of some sort, the light beams through the broken roof and picks out my starved eyes, blinding me for a few moments. The floor is covered with old bits of metal and splintered wood. I tiptoe across towards a large opening I see on the far side.
Wait! What do I look like? Is there a mirror? A bathroom perhaps? Even a dirty puddle? I can’t let John and Adam see me like this. What will they think of me? Perhaps I can get home without any fuss, slip in quietly and have a long hot bath before I have to face the world. I look down, my feet are bleeding, where are my shoes? My legs are bare, the designer skirt I bought to brighten up my life when I met the first hot flushes of the menopause has held up well. It’s charcoal grey, it’s absorbed the dirt well, it’s in good condition; it should be, it cost over two hundred pounds, nearly all the cash I’d surreptitiously saved from the housekeeping. Why me? Why should they want to lock me away in that place? All I’ve ever done is look after my husband and my son; fed them, wiped the blood off their cuts and washed their smelly underpants.
I lurch outside into the full light of a warm spring; I appear to be on a derelict industrial estate. The grass verge next to the road is overgrown; it smells fresh and sweet as I fall down and feel myself losing consciousness.
The hospital staff treated me very gently and cautiously and kept mumbling about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and counselling, but I was all right. They caught the men who’d held me, a couple of small time gangsters. They’d owned a small gymnasium, their business had collapsed. They were looking for an easy way to make fifty thousand pounds. John had always been a show-off around town, bragging about how well his motor-parts’ business was doing and driving expensive cars. My captors hadn’t realised that it was all a front. John didn’t pay the ransom, the police advised him not to; he couldn’t have paid it anyway.
The court case fascinated me, but it made me sad to see those two healthy young men get sent to prison for such a long time. After all what had they done that was so bad? At least I didn’t have to wash their dirty underpants. Before they were sent down I edged as close as I could to them and told them I’d forgiven them. They seemed perplexed. Weasel looked just as I’d imagined him, but Knuckles was gentler, younger, frightened – like a child who’d lost his mother.
Now, I’m sitting at the breakfast table, back in my lovely house. John and Adam are still fussing over me, making sympathetic noises and asking me if I’m all right. “Are you all right, Mum?”, “Are you all right Jane?” they ask. I just look at them and smile, “Of course,” I say, “of course I’m all right.”
I feel sorry for John, he’s gone to look so old and grey, and fat; he’s got nothing left. I can’t forgive Adam for that cynical sneering look he gave me in my darkest moment, but I’m all right, quite happy really, and of course Monday is still laundry day.