Sign of the Times-0249 Image by Christine Renney

The old adage is that you don’t ever really know a person until you have lived with them. She hadn’t lived with anyone else but him, not since leaving home. Not since absconding from her parents and moving in to the first of those bedsits. The first and the crummiest, the one with the hollow door. She had covered the hole that someone had punched in its centre with the poster from the White Album.
He had simply sauntered across the landing, leaving his own room for hers and that had been that. Or now it so seemed, but there must have been just a little to-ing and fro-ing. For a few weeks at least, possibly even a month. But she couldn’t now remember ever being alone. He had always been there and together they had begun to make their way in the world. Scrimping and saving and living in a succession of shabby bedsits, until inevitably it was time to find a place of their own.
They quickly found the right place and, being first-time buyers, the transition proved to be relatively smooth and painless. The flat was small but shiny and new and part of a plush and newly refurbished development. An old boarding school on the edge of town. Its location was ideal and if they were stretching themselves just a little financially, he wasn’t about to disappoint her. She was so determined, so exhilarated at being able to make this leap at last and so, without so much as a backward glance, they leapt.

Occasionally she will notice him watching her as she moves around him, pointlessly straightening a picture frame or the rug. She catches him from across the room, looking up from his book or pushing himself up from the sofa where he has been sprawled, listening to a cd, readying to talk to her, to ask something. If she fancies watching a film later or does she want his book when he has finished with it or why doesn’t she sit and listen to the music with him. Quickly stifling the moment, she will turn and rearrange the cushions or rush hastily from the room, finding something to do in the kitchen or bathroom.
She slips into the bedroom and, pulling the door to, stands beside the window, staring out across the communal lawn. She hasn’t slept for days. In fact, she can barely remember when she last lay down her head to try. She has been working late in the evenings, partly in an effort to counter her boundless energy but also she is hoping for promotion.
Perhaps she is anxious. Could anxiety be the source of her restlessness and insomnia? She should talk to him or at least sit beside him and listen to the music. But despite her lack of sleep she hasn’t ever felt so alert, so alive. She hasn’t ever felt less like sitting.
Anyhow work is the same old humdrum and when she is there she doesn’t feel as if she has changed. So she leaves home a little earlier and returns a little later, hoping by being there less, he won’t notice the change in her.

Once he is soundly asleep and she has full reign at last, she pulls back the curtains, lets in the moonlight and begins to lope and pace. Relentlessly cutting this way and that, she moves about their tiny flat with unnatural grace, in this way finding and re-finding each and every nook and cranny.
It isn’t the first time, as she laps up the hours whilst he sleeps, that she has opened the closet in the bathroom and, reaching in, pushed with both hands against the back wall. But this time she stumbles, finding herself beyond where the wall should be, standing in a narrow passage. It is dark but there is light at the end. Four straight strands, like lengths of fluorescent string, forming a rectangle. It is the light around a door, the inside of someone else’s closet.
How could the builders have hidden this? Boxed it in and built around it? But as she moves cautiously forward she realises that of course they couldn’t have. There simply isn’t enough space for a lengthy passage like this.
She begins now to run and, reaching the door, doesn’t hesitate to open it and steps into a bathroom. A bathroom exactly like theirs but without soap and shampoo, without toothpaste and brushes, without toilet paper on the holder.
She moves into the lounge and crosses to the window. She looks down and it is just as she suspected – the familiar stretch of perfectly manicured lawn and the carefully crafted flowerbeds, the block directly opposite with its wall of windows. The only difference is there are no curtains or blinds, that all of the flats are empty.
She moves back to the bathroom and peers into the closet. It is still there; the link, the bridge, the passageway connecting their own flat and this other version, this clearer and cleaner version. This untouched version.

Just as it is beginning to get light, she climbs into the bed beside him, waits for him to wake, for the day to start. During the night she has prowled both here and there, constantly checking in the closet and moving along the passage, each time with mounting trepidation and overwhelming excitement. She is still excited as she lays now in the early morning hush – waiting.
She has decided not to talk to him, but how can she keep this secret from him? He needs only to open the closet door and stumble across it as she had and he will discover everything.
She begins to formulate a not so outlandish plan. She will cover the entrance with a drape and in front of this she will create yet another barrier. She will use cleaning products and utensils, a dustpan and brush, a broom and a mop in a bucket. She will arrange these things so that they resemble an unruly mess. She knows him well enough to know that, when he opens the door and sees this, he will immediately close it.

He is awake now, rousing himself, bleary eyed after yet another of his deep and impenetrable sleeps. She reaches across him to switch off the alarm and, kissing him squarely on the lips, she leaps from the bed.
Resisting the urge, the temptation to look again in the closet, she is on tenterhooks as she prepares breakfast whilst he takes his turn in the bathroom. Not until he has left for work can she fling back the closet door only to find herself confronted with the wall. But this time when she pushes against it she doesn’t stumble on through.

That evening her frustration gradually worsens, but no matter how often she looks in the closet or pushes against the wall it won’t give. No amount of wishing and wanting and hoping can make it happen. And after all the wringing of hands and the biting of lips, she crouches down beside the open door, curling in on herself, making herself as small as she possibly can.
When she opens her eyes the wall is shimmering and she can see the passage or at least the dark beyond. It is trying to define itself, to make itself available to her. But the wall is also fighting for solidity and it is this that wins.

She can hear him now, moving around in the lounge and closing the door she steps into the hall, almost colliding with him as he moves wearily toward the bedroom. She follows him in, watches him undress, watches him collapse on the bed.

She realises now that she no longer needs the barrier to mask the portal. She doesn’t need an untidy and unruly screen because he is the key and only when he sleeps can she push through and only when he is sleeping can she make her way back.

11 thoughts on “THE PORTAL

  1. You paint a vivid description of being trapped here, Mark. This is quite a disturbing and harrowing read, especially as I feel that your male character is not the root cause of her distress, and one fears for her sanity and safety. Excellent writing, and a powerful image too.

    1. Bradbury was a real master, particularly in the short stories, so thank you Unbolt, your comment means much to me.

  2. Mark, this is superb writing as always. I have read this piece, “THE PORTAL”, several times. I’m amazed by what you have managed to capture here, I don’t know how you do it. It’s both wonderful and unsettling at the same time (please know this is a compliment). The entire story is fantastic and extremely thought provoking.

    Here is where you get to me — “It is trying to define itself, to make itself available to her. But the wall is also fighting for solidity and it is this that wins.”

    Really, really well done!

    1. You have brought a wide smile to my face. A wonderful compliment Pepperanne and glad you felt it was worthy of re-reading. Many thanks Mark.

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