It all began some six days ago with the storm. I awoke, feeling cold and unsettled: a sense that something was not quite right. There was no sound. Not even the hiss of the ventilation snaking above me. I stood and walked from my sleeping alcove to the large window of my cell. My white-faced clock said it was after seven am but the morning’s dull rays were lost amongst the swirl of wind and rain that blurred the sky like a grey cowl. Spurs of moisture were driven against the thick layered glass that stopped any sound coming through. But still on the horizon I could just make out the tall trees being lashed and pulled in different directions. Already the green common on front of my window was looking soft and sodden. White pieces of debris blew across it. I watched the drama of milk cartons ricocheting at many angles. A plastic bag was swept in gusts in a long flayed agony. Next a thin leaf was blown against the glass. I stared at its outlines and tried to remember the texture of such things. Soft yet gritty with life, smearing to green paste in my childhood hands.
It was then that I saw far below me, a figure just encroaching on the border of the grass. The person was almost directly under my window so I pressed hard against the glass trying to improve the angle so that I could see as much as possible. The figure was dressed in bulky dark oilskins and when his hood blew down I was surprised to see an older man, bald, with a bright pink face that gleamed against the damp grass. He bent down and with difficulty succeeded in opening a cover of some sort in the ground and was trying to inspect its contents which were impossible for me to make out.
This was the first person that I had seen in two years.
The red order light began to flash above my door. I eyed it with disbelief. No food had come for me. Nor my work. Nevertheless I obeyed the lights as I must always do.
I went to my bed and placed the thick balaclava mask over my head, ensuring that the nose clamp was in place. Next I placed the dark goggles over my eyes. I snapped the bulky earmuffs on. Then I fitted my hands through the restraints and snapped them shut with my thumb as I have been instructed. I lay back on the bed. At least I had the strange events to ponder. I came to the conclusion that the storm must have caused a power problem and that explained why the ventilation had gone off and that was what the man was trying to fix.
Hours must have passed until I felt the vibration of the cuffs as they snapped apart. They are remotely opened so no guard needs to even approach me. I pulled off the mask and the goggles, wet and sticky as they were from sweat. Outside the storm still raged. There was no sign of the man. I drank some water and later when I tried to sleep all I could think about were the white milk cartons bouncing on the grass like children.
The next morning everything began as normal. At seven thirty the green order light flashed indicating that my breakfast had been delivered to the cell annex. For thirty seconds the cell door opens into a tiny hallway where an outer door remains locked. From here I collect my meal tray three times a day. Then at nine thirty am the green order light flashes again, instructing me to return my tray but also to collect my work trolley from the annex.
The trolley is low, a flatbed I believe they call it, with grey casters that squeak beautifully like mice in a children’s story. On its rectangular surface rests three thin piles of paper covered in plastic for protection. These three piles are coloured white, lime green and a pale pink and each contains exactly one hundred and twenty-five pages. Beside each stack is a stamp and ink pad. I wheel in the trolley and sit at my table facing the window. At first I treated this work with disdain but now I treasure it.
I count each pile making sure that the correct amount of pages is present though what I can do if I ever find an error is unclear to me. This preparation complete I now lift a page as if it were made of the most fragile glass and place it squarely on the desk in front of me. Now I grasp the stamp. Each of these is old-fashioned with a fire-engine red handle that carries the allure of a toy. They all have different details embossed in their rubber base. One is a circle with a line bisecting it, the second is a rectangle, the third is a neat triangle. I push the associated stamp into the ink pad and then with measured strength press firmly onto the blank page as instructed. Then I sit and let it dry until it is ready to be added to its respective pile. On elaborate days, stamping a page can take three minutes. These are the good days.
I was midway through the final bundle of lime green pages when I found the hair. At first I simply stared at it. It lay long and golden on the page, gently curled at one end like a perfectly smithed piece of jewellery. Nothing so unaccounted for had entered my cell in years. Instinctively I assumed it belonged to a woman. I held it up and stared, watching it waft in the subtle air movements of my cell. I confess that I even passed it beneath my nose, imagining traces of perfume that still clung to it. I tied the hair around my finger for safekeeping. I finished my stamping task and wheeled the trolley into the annex again. In time someone comes to take it away though I never know when this happens.
For a long time I pondered where the hair might have come from. I realised that there must be another cell where another prisoner counts out one hundred and twenty-five sheets of paper in three separate bundles which are then sent on to me. Just as my work in turn must be sent on to somebody else. It makes sense of course. These tasks are both punishment and reward. How stupid I was not to realise that we were all part of a chain.
I felt dizzy and unwell. For the rest of the day I could not watch the clouds or the sky or wait for the weather to decorate my window. I could not slip into the emptiness of my days and hang there light and insignificant as a feather, a blankness resting on blankness. The weight of many things came back to me: all the events of a life that I had succeeded in forgetting. And always there was the fear of what might happen if the hair was found. The things they have chosen to do to me. The things they have chosen not to do to me.
That night I was woken from a fitful sleep by the ear-splitting inspection alarm. This was the first cell inspection in many months. I had forty-five seconds to don my mask, goggles and earmuffs and handcuff myself. I lay back on the bed, frightened by my own brutality. Though I knew I could not hear anything, I still strained pointlessly to pick up the sounds of the guards entering my cell. At one stage I thought I could detect their pounding steps but I could not be sure. I wondered would I receive a body inspection, a hideous experience where the fact that you cannot see the perpetrator heightens the agony. I lay, tense as a board, expected the jarring punch to my stomach. In my imagination they moved all about me and yet not one hand was laid on me. Minutes passed, an hour maybe, and suddenly the hand restraints opened. After inspections I always expect my cell to be destroyed but everything was as it had been. I had swallowed the hair. That might have saved me. For the moment.
The next day nothing unusual occurred at all. Nor the next. Nor the next. The storm and the man and the milk cartons became a memory. But not the solitary hair. I assumed that the person who sent it had been caught. All I could think about was why she had done it. Did the disruption of the storm drive her to it? Perhaps she did it because somebody else had once done something similar for her: sent some tiny message on. And so she in turn had now done the same, a gesture utterly meaningless in itself. A gesture as pointless as a human life.
During this time I hummed to myself, trying to work out how many days, months, years I have been here. But that seems impossible to calculate now. Later I flushed the toilet over and over and listened to the gurgling sounds. I imagined racing water. I imagined a river. At night I found it hard to sleep. Too many images. Just so many.
This morning following my breakfast the trolley arrives in my annex and I collect it. I carry out my normal preparations and begin to stamp each page. I am almost two thirds through the final bundle when I stop. For a while I stare at my pages and my stamps and my ink pads. Then I stare at the grey sky outside my window and the distant trees that stand statically like bowling pins in the distance. I return to my work and stretch out my index finger and touch the black surface of the ink pad. There is a soft give and I lift my finger, studying the wet film of ink that now clings to its tip. I reach out and touch the corner of the page in front of me.
I pull back momentarily astonished at my actions but then lean forward to peer at the mark I have made. It is faint, deliberately so and certainly could be missed. And yet once studied closely I can see the contours of skin, faintly swirling amongst its inky soul. It is insignificant and sad and yet rather beautiful I decide.
‘There it is,’ I whisper to myself. ‘There it is.’
I finish my task and replace the three bundles back on the trolley. I wheel it to the annex for collection. I return to my cell and the door closes behind me. The lock snaps shut. I sit down, feeling giddy wondering about the person who will come across the fingerprint. Will they see it as a sign or as a curse? That is no longer for me to decide. Now I sit trembling, watching the warning lights above the door. The stiff second hand of the white-faced clock moves with protest, nicking me with its edges as it passes. Still there is no sound except for the gentle wheeze of the ventilation. I study the sky through my window. A softer grey today but that might change. The end is close after so many years. It will not be long until they come.