The King of Infinite Space
Bob woke up to find himself locked in a room.
It was not a room he recognised, being that his house did not contain a concrete cell.
He definitely did not remember having light fixtures that were designed to prevent him hanging himself from them.
How did he get there? The last he remembered, he was in his study, struggling to puzzle out a scene in the novel he was working on; Laura was supposed to love Peter, but the way he’d written it, it appeared that she loved Paul instead. He was getting bogged down. It had been this way for some time. It wasn’t writer’s block, more like writer’s mire. His wife, Maria, had bought him some tea. He couldn’t remember whether he drank it or not.
He wondered where Maria was.
How much time had passed? Did she even know he was missing? He could spend large spans of time in his study, hacking away at his manuscript, trying to see some way forward. Maria often left him alone.
When he first stepped in to the mire, he had discussed it with her. She suggested he try a scorched earth approach. He had spent so much time and energy on the manuscript that he was in a delirium of sunk costs, and was not pleased at her suggestion. She had left him to it, resolving to be there when he came out.
Maybe she was looking for him. He wished for nothing more dearly than for Maria to open the door the same delicate way she always opened the door to his study, to try not disturb him, and step through with a cup of tea in her hand.
Maybe he was just assuming he was trapped, some contextual psychology thing. Maybe the door wasn’t actually locked.
He tried the door.
It was definitely locked.
Time passed, slowly. Or quickly. Bob had no way of knowing. He began to feel hungry. He gave himself over to fantasies of the meals Maria would prepare. Beef stroganoff, seafood pasta, roast chicken with all the trimmings. The pasta was his favourite. Maria did it with clams, anchovies, and capers. The capers, she said, made it salty like the sea, the way it should be. He loved the way she talked about food, using idioms he never heard her use otherwise.
He was so busy imagining the rich red sauce that he didn’t notice the footsteps approaching his cell. They had built gradually from the distance and infiltrated his consciousness with such stealth that he only noticed them when they ceased. He was pulled up from his reverie when the trap in the door snapped open. A second passed, and then a plate of food was shoved in, and the trap closed.
He was distracted to the point he almost forgot to even try communicate with his captor, so focused he was on the plate, heaped with pasta.
“Hello? Where am I? Why am I here? Who are you?”
“Hello?” he said again.
“Hello!” he tried shouting.
Whoever was on the other side of the door seemed to hesitate at hearing his voice. Were they weighing their reply? He heard the feet turn, and clop off at an even pace, to his right. The feet clopped? Clogs? What kind of prison guard wears clogs?
In one catlike motion he remembered himself and undulated off the bed to inspect the food. It was pasta. Not pasta the way Maria made it, though. He picked up the spork he’d been provided with. Was that suicide proof too? He thought he probably could kill himself with it, but it would be long and painful and besides, he didn’t want to kill himself. Not just yet, anyway. The pasta was sugary, watery. The kind of tinned supermarket pasta where they add all the sugar to make it palatable, because it also contains this week’s intake of salt. Salty like the Dead Sea.
A day in captivity is enough to make any man stop being fussy. He thought of the calories, then he thought of the salt, then he thought of the fact that it should be Maria he was missing more, and not her food. He finished quickly and moved to the sink to drink as much water as he could.
The next three days were pasta. The steps changed though. He wanted to do his best to keep his wits about him, to puzzle out as much as he could about who was holding him. He listened hard for footsteps. There was no pattern as to where they’d come from, or where they’d go to. And the shoes. He’d heard boots. He’d heard heels. There had been the clogs of course. He was pretty sure he’d heard the guard try sneak up barefoot, then put on some slippers and slide away. The stride, the heaviness of the footfall, always varied. He couldn’t tell whether it was one person with a split personality from the knees down or the most motley crew of captors he’d ever come across outside of a Guy Ritchie film.
On what Bob thought was the fifth day, he was very hungry. Was dinner late? He had no way of knowing. He kept his eyes closed and reached out with his ears, trying to consciously feel vibrations instead of just trying to hear. He felt nothing, heard nothing. The trap slammed open and his eyes with it, involuntarily, taking in the full light of the fixture and giving him a nice snapshot of the vasculature of his eyeballs. He heard something slide in, and the bolthole slam again. His stomach roiled wildly with excitement at the prospect of food, but he had to wait, being able to behold only a photograph of his retinas.
When he’d recovered, he rolled over and glanced at the floorspace near the door. He saw a black square with another, white square set inside it. When he looked closer, he saw what he thought must be a laptop, with a note on top of it. He took the note, opened the laptop, and pressed the power button. The note said:
“This laptop has a Linux distribution on it that boots straight to a word processor. In the ‘References’ menu you will find the complete works of Shakespeare, and the King John Bible. Save your work to the E: drive; the laptop is connected to a LAN. If we have received a story of reasonable quality by tomorrow, you will be fed. The quality of writing you give us will correlate with the quality of the food you receive. Why are you still reading this note? Shouldn’t you be writing?”
No time, no time. He’d spent enough energy thinking about his situation. He couldn’t miss his coffee or his writing playlist or the rubber duck that was taped to the top of his monitor, whose belly he’d rub just before setting down to work. He had to just shut up and get writing.
Shut up and get writing.
Bob thought that this must be about the worst time in the world to get writer’s block. He didn’t know what to do about it. He’d been wondering how to deal with writer’s block long before he’d been imprisoned. He’d once thought about being confined in a library and a typewriter, how that might help him put aside distractions and turn himself to his work with determination and grit. He realised now how lucky he had been to not often get what he wanted.
There had been days when he couldn’t do anything. He’d write fifty words and have to try consider that a decent chunk of work, because if he didn’t, he’d go mad blaming himself and his mind would twist and turn with recriminations regarding his hubris, his lack of talent, his work ethic.
What was it he always tried to tell himself when experiencing this kind of block?
The first thing they always tell you is to write what you know.
Well, a lot of what he knew about or thought about at the moment was being confined. He had difficulty thinking of much else. He wasn’t well enough used to it yet to cling on to any kind of hope, or have the ability to disappear inside himself and his own mind and build in there a fortress against the slings and arrows.
He decided to try writing a story about a man who’d been confined and forced to write fiction for his food. That was something at least that he had some idea about. It wouldn’t require much research, just his recollections. If he needed to know anything, he could just look around. How did the bed feel? What was the water like? Was the toilet dirty or clean? These things he knew.
He managed about two thousand words. He felt good about it. He hadn’t written with such freedom for a long while. No pausing to look out the window, no staring at the duck, no alt-tabbing. Two thousand words worth of tapping. More time had passed than he had thought, he imagined. He had a nap, gambling on having time to proofread it, at least. It might not cohere, but at least he wouldn’t spell tomorrow with two ms.
He was a charlatan and a brigand, for stringing his wife along, making her think he was a writer. And not only that, but given the opportunity to reflect at length on his wife and his love and respect for her, all he could think of was the mushroom bourguignon she’d do on Wednesdays, containing so few ingredients and so much flavour. He was nothing. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t even come up with a decent plot. No redeeming qualities to this work. And he was a chauvinist. Perhaps the author might consider trying his hand at something else? Has he considered becoming a bank clerk, perhaps?
Bob had been telling himself all along that this was all he was good at and even this he couldn’t do, not with any kind of art. He had defrauded his poor wife. Either he was blocked and couldn’t write, or he could write and it was garbage. Garbage that had felt like the lightning of the Gods flowing through his mind and fingers as he wrote it, but still garbage.
Never had he been so worried about a rejection letter. He didn’t have to wait long. Steps he didn’t hear had bought someone before the door. He saw a chink of shadow. Soft soled desert boots?
A note was passed under the door instead of through the trap.
“Writing a story about yourself? Really Bob, you must try harder if you want to eat. If you were Paul Auster, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
A metallic sound beat quickly away to the left.
They were right. He certainly wasn’t Paul Auster.
What else did he know enough about that he could use? That’s the problem when you become a writer because it’s a good excuse to spend time alone, and not because you’ve got something to write about. He had an imagination, sure, but he didn’t trust it. People had suggested journalism, but unfortunately he had a sense of ethics.
And all he could think about was food, anyway. Food and his wife. He missed them. Soon enough it would be in that order. Maybe it already was and he was kidding himself.
What else could he write about at the moment but food?
He ended up writing a description of a king at a grand banquet. The queen was going to poison the king’s favourite dish. Really it was just a vehicle for him to write long and lavish descriptions of beef joints, roast ducks, lobsters that seemed the definition of the colour red. And ale served by busty maidens and huge golden goblets filled with arterial wine.
The king offers his son the first cut of his favourite, the roast duck. The queen is agape, the son overjoyed. They all end up dead. Was he ripping off Hamlet? Didn’t that have a swordfight at the end? He couldn’t remember, and he didn’t check before submitting the story.
The crunching and grinding of glass slippers on gritty concrete let him know that a verdict had been reached. It pushed a bowl of thin, transparent gruel through the door, and left.
The only solid thing in the bowl turned out to be half of an overcooked potato. Bob was happy to remember what chewing felt like.
The attached note said,
“Better, but plot clumsy. Some nice descriptive work, but get feeling you misunderstood Hamlet. You have a copy, remember?”
He read Hamlet again that night. And the sonnets. Shakespeare really wasn’t meant to be read on a 800*600 screen, but it kept his mind off his stomach.
He lay and thought about his wife. He didn’t know how much time had passed, or whether he’d missed his deadline. All he knew was he missed his wife. Reading the sonnets had made it worse. Whoever Shakespeare had been writing about he had loved them, and in his love had given them the gift of living forever beside him.
He knew he might never see his wife again. What else could he do but write the truest vision of her he could. He knew he was no poet, and he couldn’t plot, but he could describe things.
He described his wife in length and detail. Her looks, her manner, her interests. The most complete portrait he could manage given his weakness of body and bluntness of technique.
He had an ambition in line with his abilities now. His wife would live forever as a vision of beauty, intelligence, and fairness, even as his lazy bones and wasteful mind rotted in this hole.
He no longer cared whether he was fed.
It was the most artful thing he’d ever written.
It wasn’t long before he heard the footsteps. Tentative, bare footsteps. What would he be getting today? Maybe a raw turnip, perhaps some cheap beans. He’d take it.
The bolthole opened and in slid a heaped plate of pasta. Had he really done that well? And a cup of coffee. He fell on the plate and took a forkful. It had capers, anchovies, chilies, garlic, all balancing exquisitely on his tongue. He even felt a twang on his tongue that lead him to believe there was some wine in the sauce.
The door opened.
There stood his wife, the very vision of beauty, made up exactly as he had described.
“I had to cure your writer’s block somehow. I was trying to help you. That last piece about me. It was… I’m so sorry.”
He looked at her. Then he looked back at the pasta, then back at her.