Looking at the apartment block made me feel colder than the wind did. It was a grim cube of concrete and steel, designed by a communist architect during an age that knew no joy, and the low winter sky leached the life from it like a sponge. The inside was little better – a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room with a sofa that doubled as a bed, each room austere, silent and brutally functional. I placed my suitcase beside the sofa. I was tired. The flight had been fine, but the man that the company had said would come to meet me hadn’t turned up, so I had been forced to negotiate a taxi from the airport to the apartment block using little more than sign language. The taxi driver had rolled his eyes and chewed out brittle Slavonic words that I assumed were curses.
Outside the apartment, the sun sank below an unfamiliar horizon and darkness crowded at the window. I turned the light on, but jealous shadows still lurked in the corners of the room. At least there was a television for company; I picked up the crude plastic remote control, pressed the red button and tinny laughter from a lurid variety show flooded into the room. Four clicks took me from a dated drama programme to an old black-and-white film via two sets of news, each read by newscasters that looked like mourning fathers. None of the channels were subtitled or dubbed, and I found them disorienting and virtually unwatchable.
A sixth channel, however, showed something quite different. On this channel there was a man lying in a hospital bed in a stark, white-tiled room, motionless and bathed in a faintly bluish light that made everything look chilly and artificial. Nothing more. The bed was too far away from the camera for me to make out his face, and there was no speech and no music; in fact there was no sound at all except for the occasional faint noise of footsteps echoing in the background. At first I thought it was a still image, that the visual transmission had become frozen, until I noticed a cockroach slither across the floor. I watched for a full ten minutes, entranced, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. The anonymous man just lay there. After a while I was surprised to find that the surgical nature of the room made me feel a little nauseous, so I turned off the set. I took Sarah’s note out of my pocket and read the last line.
Don’t worry, it said, It’s only for six months. I looked around the apartment.
“Six months,” I said out loud.
I folded out the sofa and turned off the light. As I settled down to sleep I noticed that the bare plaster walls made my breathing echo slightly, so that it seemed as though there were someone else in the room with me.
* * *
The next day, my first at the facility, was difficult. English had not been part of the curriculum when this country had been concealed behind the Iron Curtain, and the most that my co-workers could muster for me was a self-conscious ‘hello’. The only person with whom I could really communicate was Vasilyi, whom the company had appointed as my assistant for the duration of the project. “I study economic in UK,” he told me with pride, but even with his help every aspect of the day bewildered me. I left work at five o’clock that evening with a headache.
The air in the deserted street was cold and dry, and it chilled my lungs as I inhaled. When I reached the block I hurried inside to the sanctuary of my apartment, but I discovered that it was barely warmer than outside. I realised that I hadn’t set the heating the previous day. I left my overcoat on as I heated some beans on the stove.
I thought it odd that Sarah hadn’t called, but when I turned on my mobile phone I saw that it had no signal. I felt further from home than I had ever been, and I began to wonder whether coming here hadn’t all been a huge mistake. The light from the screen on my phone dyed my fingers a luminescent green, as though it were the initial symptom of some kind of malady of isolation that were growing within me.
I sat down on the sofa with a plate of beans on toast and scanned the television channels again. I could see my breath in front of my face. The first five channels were still utterly incomprehensible to me, but I was surprised to see that channel six was showing the same programme as it had the previous night.
I noticed a few subtle differences: the camera seemed to have moved a little closer to the bed, though not close enough to make out the identity of the bed’s occupant, and the cracked plastic chair beside the bed had been moved. I could see an outdated monitor in a thick plastic housing beside the bed, recording the feeble pulsing of the man’s heart. Looking at him lying there made me feel uncomfortable, but I felt an overwhelming compulsion to watch the slow rise and fall of the man’s chest, if only to see if anything would happen. After all, what else was there for me to do?
I don’t know whether it was the intolerable inertia of the scene or the dawning recognition of that very same aspect within my own life, but as I watched I became aware of a sense of dread mounting within me. With every pulse of the monitor the feeling of dread rose until eventually the malevolent stillness in that tiled room became unbearable and I was forced to tear myself away from the television.
I lurched into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I looked at myself in the mirror; the whites of my eyes were speckled with red. Mist from my breath bloomed on the glass of the mirror and then faded to nothing.
Suddenly the silence was punctuated by a sharp spike of white noise from the living room. I hurried back in and saw that the camera had moved closer still to the man in the hospital bed. I peered uneasily at the screen. I could now make out signs of grime on the sheets, and I saw that the angry red marks on the man’s arm that I had assumed were bruises were in fact open sores. I realised that I was shivering. I quickly turned the television off.
I spent the rest of the evening reading the company orientation literature that Vasilyi had provided for me, but I eyed the television with suspicion, and I could not escape the feeling that there was a presence other than myself in the room with me. It was with some degree of uneasiness that I eventually went to bed.
I was woken during the night by the sound of a woman sobbing. I opened my eyes and found that the room was washed in a cold blue light, the source of which, I realised with distress, was the television. I looked over at the table, but the remote control wasn’t there. My heart thudded in my chest as I propped myself up in bed to look around for it, and then I noticed the screen: to my horror it was showing the hospital programme again. The camera had moved yet closer to the bed, and I would have been able to make out the man’s face if he hadn’t been lying on his side. His fingers were thin, and hooked like claws, and all the while the unseen woman continued her wretched weeping and moaning.
I pulled my gaze away from the screen and spotted the remote control lying face down on the floor beside the sofa bed, and I quickly snatched it up and turned the television off. I told myself that I must have knocked it off the table in my sleep, that the impact must have turned on the television. I laid back in bed, but I didn’t get back to sleep for some time. I couldn’t get the sound of the woman’s sobbing out of my mind.
* * *
“You look tired,” said Vasilyi when I arrived at work the next day, “Do you sleep?”
“Not well,” I said, “Listen, have you seen the television programme about the man in the hospital bed?”
“No,” he said.
I spent most of the afternoon staring out of the window at the sky as the day slid past me, and I found myself returning to the apartment without enthusiasm. The blank walls seemed somehow menacing and the streets outside were dark and oppressive, and so, despite the uneasiness with which I now viewed it, I turned to the television as a last resort for companionship.
I found, to my relief, that channel two was showing an old James Bond film. It was dubbed, so that Sean Connery sounded just like the 1960s Soviet villains that he was always trying to foil, but even with this handicap I found the familiarity of it childishly comforting. I left it playing in the background as I went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Gunshots, squealing tyres and that unmistakable music accompanied me as I chopped vegetables.
Then I heard a sudden snap of static, followed by silence. I ran back into the living room, and my heart plunged when I saw that the television had tripped onto channel six again. The camera was very close to the man in the hospital bed now, and I could see plastic tubes looping away from his arm and up into a bag that hung from a metal stand.
I reached for the remote control, but as I did so I noticed with horror that the man in the bed was moving, turning, hauling himself upright. He was emaciated, far beyond the point of malnourishment, and his skin was drawn tight over his bones like a drum. Thin hair hung limply from his head in strands, and his eyes stared out at me from deep within blackened sockets.
Then he raised his arm and pointed straight at the camera, straight at me, and said something.He repeated it three times, in a voice that sounded like paper being torn, and then his eyes rolled back and he began to scream.
I couldn’t bear to look at it, even less to hear it, and I darted over and yanked the television power cable out of the wall. With a tremulous, unsteady hand I wrote down on a scrap of paper a phonetic approximation of the phrase that the man had said and took it to work with me the next day.
“Where are you hear this?” asked Vasilyi when I read it to him.
“On television,” I said.
“Why? What does it mean?”
“It means ‘You will die’.”
He pulled a face and laughed. I tried to join in with him, but couldn’t.
* * *
I put up pictures in my office at the facility in an attempt to combat the drab décor of the room, but there was little I could do to ignore the fatalistic atmosphere that now hung heavily around me. At lunchtime I used the unwieldy desk phone in my office to call Sarah.
“Are you OK?” she said, her voice made ragged by electronics and distance, “I haven’t been able to get through.”
“I’m fine,” I said, “I can’t get a signal on my mobile over here, that’s all.”
We talked for a time, using practicalities to avoid touching on the subjects that we both knew would have to be discussed sooner or later.
“Your voice sounds shaky,” she said, “Are you sure everything is all right?”
“No, I’m fine. I’ve been having some problems settling in, but…it’s just good to hear your voice.”
Then the line crackled and went dead, and when I dialled the number again all I got was a dead tone. Vasilyi told me that it happened a lot. I didn’t know whether or not she heard the last part.
Five o’clock arrived at my office with brutal inexorability, and, rather than return to the apartment, I decided to take the bus to the concrete shopping arcade. I browsed without purpose or enthusiasm through stark, alien shops; the thought of seeing the man in that awful hospital bed again prompted a cold nausea to rise within my stomach. I tried to hide myself amongst hunched, wintry people, but they spread away from me and no-one would look me in the eye. At seven o’clock the security guards closed the arcade and I found myself in a litter-blown alcove with nowhere to go but back to the apartment block.
I was the only passenger on the bus that carried me along the bitter streets and back to the apartment. The driver said something to me as I got off, but I hid down in my coat and pretended not to hear him as the bus pulled away to reveal the apartment block. It reared up in front of me, ugly and mute, its darkened windows like hollow eye sockets. As I climbed the stairs a weight seemed to settle itself upon my shoulders.
I paused in front of the door to my apartment, the key clammy in my hand. The corridor was silent and empty, and the buzzing fluorescent lights soaked it in a surgical ambience. I swallowed, turned the key in the lock and opened the door, and, even though I had almost been expecting it, the sight of blue light flickering on the wall from the television terrified me.
I rushed in to turn it off, barely thinking to close the door behind me, but as I fumbled for the remote control I could not help but notice what was on the screen. The camera was now positioned at the foot of the hospital bed, looking up towards that hideous face. I saw a cockroach weave its way across the pillow, and I saw that the monitor positioned beside the bed was dead. Hung over the foot of the bed was a clipboard with a sheet of paper affixed to it, and on the paper two words were written. I snatched up the pocket dictionary that the company had given me and flicked through the pages, my hands shaking.
The first word was ‘brain’. I turned the pages looking for the second, knowing already what it would be. My trembling finger drew across the page and came to rest upon the word ‘tumour.’ The words seemed burned onto the page rather than printed, bolder and darker than mere ink.
I heard a click and a rush of white noise, and looked up from the dictionary to see that the terrible hospital scene had been replaced by a hissing static that competed with the heavy throbbing of blood in my ears. I dropped the dictionary and groped at the remote control, and I flicked through the other channels, faster and faster, but they were all the same. The white noise grew louder and louder until it reverberated throughout the room, crashed against the inside of my head, made my eyes ache, brought bile to my throat, forced me to stagger left and right and clamp my hands over my ears. I clenched my teeth, screwed my eyes shut and collapsed down onto the sofa, sweating, gasping, begging it to stop.
Then there was silence.
Hesitantly, fearfully, I removed my hands from my ears and opened my eyes. The white noise was gone, but the television had returned to the familiar hateful blue of channel six. I didn’t want to look at it, couldn’t bear to look at it, but I couldn’t stop myself. The camera had retreated to the position that it had occupied the very first time that I had seen the channel, but this time the bed itself was empty, and the sheets had been changed and smoothed, as though in anticipation of a new patient.
I began to feel dizzy. I felt a warm sensation on my lip and looked down to see a spot of blood on my shirt. I touched a finger to my nose. It had started to bleed.