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Under construction

Haidee Kruger

I think it was somewhere in July when it happened. The sky was taut and fierce, like the face of a woman afraid of mirrors. I remember, because I was eating breakfast and thinking that I ought to phone my mother.

I probably noticed something odd about the light outside even before the doorbell rang, but ignored it, as one does. It was, I think, just a watery quality, something abnormally pastel-like, as if the neighbourhood had been relocated into a bad watercolour painting. But I didn't pay much attention to it. Around here the light often changes in unexpected ways. Something to do with the way the pollution reflects the rays of the sun, like glossy paper.

The doorbell rang while I was busy poking holes in the runny blonde yolks of the eggs on my plate. I watched the yellow making a puddle and hoped that whoever it was would go away. I bit into a piece of toast, reminding myself to phone my mother. The doorbell rang again. Whoever it was wasn't going to be ignored. I went to the door, still chewing. Toast in hand I opened the door.

Something about the meeting of my very white legs and the wintry light bouncing off the frost on the pale grass made for a moment of blinding light, so dazzling that I had to close my eyes. It was like one of those dreams in which you know there is something you really have to see right now, and if you don't, something dreadfully gruesome is going to happen to you - but you just can't manage to open your eyes. It's as if they're pasted shut with superglue.
     It was exactly like that.
     I was standing there in my pj's, with my winterwhite, flaky legs, toast in hand, and I couldn't convince my eyes to tackle the brightness of that light. The farthest open I could get them was little vents: just enough to make out the wobbly lurching skeleton of the world outside.

But I managed to keep my pose.
     "Yes?" I said, using my coolest voice. "Can I help you?"
     "Are you ... um ... Estella?" said the voice of a man. His intonation made it clear that he was of the clipboard-carrying, overall-wearing kind.
     "Yes," I said.
     "We're just here to deliver this notice about the construction."
     "Construction?" I echoed, immediately regretting the chink in my façade that opened with the ditsy repetition.
     At this point my eyes started getting accustomed to the light and the inkblot in front of me slowly materialised like a cheap science-fiction special effect. He was indeed carrying a clipboard and wearing an overall, but other than that he did not look like the municipal type. He had careful hands and soft nails, like somebody who did a lot of typing. His glasses made him look like a voyeur: it was as if he was perpetually trying to peer through a keyhole.
     "I'm not sure I understand," I said.
     "Your place is up for construction," he replied, "and I'm just delivering the formal notice. If you'll just sign here."
     "Thanks," I said, keeping my spine straight and my mouth small. I took the clipboard and signed my name in the blank space. It was surrounded by lots of writing, but it was really small and kept moving about. It reminded me of a TV-programme I'd seen, about these millions of little black crabs hatching on a babypowder-white beach on some island somewhere, balefully teeming and writhing their collective way to the water. The words on that page looked exactly like that, and it positively set my teeth on edge.
     I quickly gave the clipboard back.
     He smiled, handed me a slip of paper, waved, and left.

I closed the door and went back to the kitchen, thinking that I really ought to phone my mother.

Instead she phoned me.
     "Hi, Mary," she said.
     "Mother," I said. "My name is not Mary. It's Ophelia. You know that. You chose my name. You told me. Remember?"
     "Mary, Mary, quite contrary," she said. "Always were."
     I breathed out loudly through my nose. "How are you?"
     "Fine. You?"
     "I'm okay."
     "What's news?"
     Clichéd old witch. "Nothing much," I said. "I got a notice today saying that my place is up for construction. I'm not sure what that means."
     She laughed, as she usually does.
     "Well, let me know how things turn out. I'm going for a bikini wax. Bye, dear."
     "Bye, Mother."

It was as I was putting down the phone that I looked out the window and saw it - really saw it - for the first time. I had to blink a couple of times; it just seemed so wrong. Instead of the usual slightly depressing view on my neighbours' back yard, neatly divided into rusty little honeycombs by the dilapidated chicken wire, there was just a clean blank space. It was so clean and so blank that it made one's eyes water to look at it directly, like an optical illusion, or a vision of the Virgin.

After a couple of minutes of looking and not looking, I ventured out the back door. I walked towards the place where my fence should have been. The closer I came to whatever had taken its place, the harder it was to keep my eyes focused on it. It kept sort of shifting, as if it were evading my field of vision, keeping me from looking directly at it. And it kept getting brighter, more brilliant. I decided that if I had to keep my eyes open, I would not be able to go right up to it. So I shut my eyes, put my hands out in front of me, and, like a sleepwalker, kept on going, the tips of my fingers humming.

I almost didn't notice when I finally did walk into it. It was so thin, so ordinary. As if it belonged there. I didn't dare open my eyes - they started watering every time I even thought of lifting the lids. I read the thing in front of me with my fingers, like Braille. It had a strange texture, hard to place. Something between new paper and bubblewrap and typewriter's ribbon and skin that's hidden from daylight. It was kind of sinister, but somehow familiar.

Still with eyes closed, I backed away, retracing my steps to the back door. I stepped into the ordinariness of the house, carefully easing the door closed behind me. I was on my way to the phone to call somebody (the municipality, my shrink, the guy I occasionally buy dope off, my mother, anybody) when I ran into someone in the corridor.
     I can't really explain how that felt, except to say that there's a very definite category of terror reserved for encountering a strange body in your corridor when there isn't supposed to be anybody there.

I must have turned and ran, because the next scene is in my living room.
     I was sitting on the couch, with the strange man standing next to me. Looking at him in the now chronic light coming in through the windows, he looked oddly familiar, like I'd seen him somewhere before. It wasn't until he spoke that his face fell into its place in my head.
     "I'm really sorry for frightening you, Magda, but since you'd signed the papers and everything we thought you understood the procedure. We certainly didn't mean to scare you."
     I couldn't speak.
     "You just sit here and relax, and we'll just finish up in here. Okay?"
     He left before I could answer.

Sitting on the couch I had a clear view outside. I wasn't particularly surprised to see that the same white substance had been wrapped around the front of my house, where the street was supposed to be, too. No doubt it was the same all around.
     Inside the house I could hear the sounds of people rummaging through drawers and cupboards and storage boxes.

I sat for a few minutes, allowing the strangeness and the shock and the sense of violation to stew inside me, before I got up and stomped down the corridor.

I found him in my bedroom, with his hands in my underwear drawer. He didn't even have the decency to blush when I walked into the room.
     "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" I asked.
     "Just following procedure, Emma dear. Clause three of the document: Protective Measures."
     "Firstly, my name isn't Emma. Why would you think that? And secondly, I have no idea what you're talking about."
     He smiled as he closed the drawer: "Just about done."
     I followed him from the room. He walked to the front door, where four other bland-skinned men stood waiting. They had three cardboard boxes with them, filled with a bunch of my stuff. Looking inside I saw knives, vegetable peelers, nail files, razors, needles, scissors, tweezers, ballpoint pens, screwdrivers. Anything remotely sharp in my house was in those boxes.

Before I could trigger my mouth they opened the front door and left, carrying the three boxes. They disappeared into the scorching whiteness, and no matter how hard I tried to keep my eyes open, I just couldn't continue looking to see where they had gone.

I closed the door. Perhaps I should try to phone my mother.
     I went to the phone and picked it up.
     Nothing.
     I should have known; I've read enough trashy thrillers. When the heroine picks up a phone in her moment of need, it will be dead. I didn't even bother with the conventional slamming of the phone rest with the palm. I also didn't take the trouble of hysterically crying or wildly looking around for escape.

Instead I sat on the couch and had a smoke.
     So. I'm under construction, whatever that means.
     Fine. Whatever.
     And, predictably, at that moment the power went off.

The house seemed to inhale sharply, and then slowly started exhaling. The fridge, the computer, the radio, the iron all hummed for a few surprised seconds, and then fell quiet. I sat on the couch in the dark, watching the glow of my cigarette, measuring the time until it would be gone.
     When I felt the heat on my fingers I stubbed it out, fumbling for the ashtray. I worked on some logic: it's about four in the afternoon, and barely fifteen minutes ago the light was so bright outside that I couldn't keep my eyes open. Therefore, it is logically impossible that it should now be pitch dark, as if light never existed.

I went to the window to test my logic.
     I imagine that looking from the outside, my face must have been luminescent, like those dayglo moons and stars. I felt like the only thing retaining light. Where the incandescent expanse had been just now, there was now an emptiness into which all light seemed to have drained. It was beyond dark. If I were in a novel, I would probably have described it as the tenebrous heart of the abyss, or something like that.
     As it was, I returned to the couch and went to sleep.

When I woke up, the phosphorescence was back. And things soon fell into a regular pattern, as if the interplay between white and black was orchestrated by a punctual, determined time-keeper. Twelve hours of eyeball-scalding light, twelve hours of pitch dark. Nothing in between: no dusk or dawn, or eventide, or nightfall, or sunrise, or gloaming, or anything remotely poetic like that.
     I was lassoed in the spaces between white and black. They were pinning me down, tying me up. I was handcuffed to my house: unable to face either extremity for longer than a few seconds before crawling back inside.

Time passed. The power never came back on. The house seemed to deflate; seemed to grow soft, spongy, flexile. The inside of the fridge came alive, moist and furry and mouldy. Its yeasty smell crawled along the skirting boards, sending its hairy tendrils up against the walls. The house was a mixture of damp and dust. Viscous drops of moisture fogged up the windowpanes, as if the frames were tear ducts; small mounds of loamy soot accumulated in the corners. Sometimes I would try to clean, but mostly I couldn't see the point.
     Occasionally I wrote my name on the windows or in the dust in fat, heavy letters.

The house shrunk, closed in around me. I could feel it coming closer, until eventually I couldn't tell the difference between it and my skin. I still did not understand, and mostly didn't bother to. I was sure that this was just some bureaucratic debacle that would be cleared up pretty soon.

It was when I started feeling the contractions that I realised that this was a matter of life and death. The house, sidled up so intimately against me already, spasmodically shuddered itself even closer. Between the white and the black and the dust and the damp there was sometimes no oxygen left for me, no space to stretch my legs, no gap to test my voice.

I became obsessed with finding a way out. Any way.
     I thought of constructing a hot-air balloon or some sort of flying machine.
     I tried throwing bricks through that sleek dust jacket wrapped around us, cowering close to the protection of the front door.
     I set fire to the house, to myself, to the trees in the garden. But everything was too damp.
     I tried using the smoke from my failed fires to send messages to somebody, anybody who would look into the sky, but could not remember any kind of code that would be understood by others.
     I tried to strangle myself with the mute telephone cord.

In the end it was much simpler. I realised that something sharp was the key. Why else go to the trouble of removing all those things? It took days of searching. But eventually I found it: a half-blunt pencil that had remained hidden at the bottom of the laundry basket. It was enough.

Armed with what they hadn't wanted me to find, I stepped out. The first time I tried it during light-time. I didn't make it past the stoep. My body bluntly refused the brightness. The second time I went out in the dark. I made it a little further, but when I got about halfway I became so terrified of the sucking, inky hollowness coming from over there that I turned and ran.

Then I had an idea. I thought that perhaps if I could time my attempt at the exact moment when black switched to white, I would be able to make it. It really was a split second, but perhaps just the smallest sliver of inbetween would be all I needed to squeeze through.

For about a week I timed it, until I could anticipate the precise point when the switch happened.
     And then I was ready.

I waited in the doorway, holding on to the frame to keep me from being swept inside by the dizzying murkiness. I carried my pencil in my hand, occasionally running a thumb over the consolation of its sharpness. I imagined that a knight must feel like this about his sword, or a surgeon about his scalpel.

I counted down the last seconds. Just before the changeover I stopped calculating, stopped thinking. I threw myself outside, without looking. I met first the dark, then the brightness - headlong, breathless.
     Time dropped to the ground like a stone.
     I ran.

I couldn't believe it when I felt the crush of the thing against my body. I didn't dare open my eyes - I just started stabbing at it, desperate to find its weakness. The lead slipped over the smooth surface the first couple of times, then suddenly bit into it. I opened my eyes: before me I could see the pewter trails of the pencil wriggling over the pale surface, punctuated by a small hole. I stuck the pencil into the hole and ripped it into a gash big enough to crawl through. I closed my eyes, stuck my head in and dragged myself through.

I've thought a lot about how to explain the sensation of crawling through that hole. I wanted to say that it was something like being born: being pulled back and forward at the same time, not knowing what you'll be on the outside.
     But perhaps that's too melodramatic.

I felt like the literary survivor of a shipwreck. I lay on my back, eyes closed, coughing and retching. I didn't want to open my eyes, for fear of paradise or desert coast or home. But once I'd heard the voice I had to.
     "Well, hello there," he said. "How'd you get here?"
     I didn't answer. The cuticles of his voice were careful and clean.
     "What's your name again?" he said.
     I pretended not to hear him.
     "Let's go inside now," he said, mildly.
     I curled my hand around my pencil, and smiled.

I think it was somewhere in July when it happened.