A man, let’s call him D, is seen digging his way out through the wall of his cell.
To help in this project D has only the flimsiest and least reliable tools: two dessert spoons (one stainless steel, one EPNS); half of a pair of curved nail scissors; some domestic knives lacking handles; and so on. The cell wall, constructed from grey, squarish cinder blocks about a foot on a side, has been carelessly mortared and laid without much attention to detail. But this lack of artifice makes no difference; none of the knives is long enough to reach the last half inch of mortar at the back of each block, and the more D uses them the shorter they get. Each block must, eventually, be loosened and removed by hand, a task which can take several months, and which leaves him exhausted.
His hands become deformed and swollen. After a decade of digging, he breaks through, to find not the outside but a compartment about three feet in depth, full of dust, mouse-droppings and bundles of old newspapers tied with string. Collapsed against its outer wall he discovers the desiccated corpse of another man, surrounded by worn-down meat skewers, bent knife blades, and an artful device made by splitting and opening-out an old metal cup. This man is huddled up with his shoulder and one cheek against the wall as if in his last moments he was trying to push it over; or as if he had pressed his face up against it to try and look out through some tiny crack, the result of a lifetime’s effort. His skin, which has a patient look, is as yellowed as the newspapers.
Taking the corpse under the armpits, D drags it respectfully to one side, selects the best of the tools, and begins scraping where the dead man left off.
Years pass. He is generally full of energy; but, sometimes, when he wakes too tired or depressed to work, he’ll spend half a day reading. In strong sunlight, newsprint can go yellow and brittle-looking in an hour, giving you the eerie feeling that the news is already old. The events recorded—some tennis matches, a bombing, a fake suicide—seem historical and quaint; the people oddly dressed, their figures of speech as hard to sympathise with as their values. After a few hours, D thinks, all newsprint and thus in a sense all news, looks the same. It looks like the paper with which someone lined a drawer thirty years ago. By the same token, the news of previous generations, the kind of news he is now forced to read, looks about six hours old.
A decade of intense effort and focus enables D to break through the second wall. Disappointed to discover another musty compartment, another corpse with a puzzled expression and a selection of home-made tools, he sets about the third wall—only to reveal a third compartment; then, after a further decade, another, and another: until he has made his way through six walls, past the six dead men who can be said, in some way, to have preceded him. Like D, all these men wear the grey civilian cotton jacket in which they were arrested, over combat trousers with a beautiful if rather faded dazzle pattern of blues and browns. Their hands are as bruised and dirty, their nails as broken, as D’s. Their hair and clothes are equally impregnated with dust. But he is glad to see that each one has made some individual addition to the basic toolset—a cut-down trowel from the prison garden, a snapped hacksaw blade, a short length of soft thick metal which he suspects began life as a fire-iron in the prison governor’s quarters—and though they are dead, some of them have quite satisfied expressions.
They died, he thinks, doing what they wanted to do.
Before he breaks through the seventh wall, D decides to see how his escape is progressing, so he makes his way back, through compartment after compartment, to the cell from which he started. Accustomed to living in the spaces between the walls, he has forgotten how relatively large and comfortable it was, with its white paint, metal bed, keyhole toilet and barred window (through which he can hear, still rumbling on, the tail end of the afternoon storm). There’s even a small shelf of books!
D stops to touch the spine of Dino Buzzati’s masterpiece The Tartar Steppe. He takes it down and riffles the pages, looking for the marked lines he knows by heart— “The fact is that now, towards the end of his days, Filimore has suddenly seen Fortune approach in silver armour and with a bloodstained sword; he hardly ever thought of her any more, yet now he saw her approach in this strange guise and her face was friendly. And Filimore—this is the truth—did not dare go to meet her; he had been deceived too often and now he had had enough.” Then he opens the cell door and steps out into the dazzling light and humid atmosphere of the prison compound. The rain has already evaporated from the bare, reddish earth. High above, a brahminy kite patrols the air, all its attention focussed on something D can’t see.
It takes only a moment to walk round the cell block to the place where he expects to break through. Though he taps the wall here and there, and bends down once to touch the mortar, he finds no sign of his own efforts; yet he still feels optimistic. Before he goes back in, he looks over at the wall of the compound itself. It’s six or seven metres high, and featureless but for some black stains. Once he’s got out of the cell block, he thinks, he will have to start on that. It will be a new challenge. D’s quite excited about the prospect, so he goes back inside and starts digging again with renewed enthusiasm.
The Walls is copyright M John Harrison 2007, & first appeared under the title “Still Rumbling” as one of the stories told by Barbara Campbell at 1001 Nights cast.