'Four White Walls'

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Author: Frances Guerin
Date: May-November 2018
From: Hecate(Vol. 44, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: Hecate Press
Document Type: Short story
Length: 1,531 words

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About this Work
Title: Four White Walls (Short story)
Published: 2018
Genre: Short story
Author: Guerin, Frances
Occupation: Australian college teacher

I sit on a wooden chair surrounded by four white walls. They define the spatial limitations of my world. I examine the chair, wondering where it came from, and I ask myself, why doesn't it match the decor? The chair is old and splattered with pink, but the walls were recently plastered and painted. All white. I smell their newness, fresh as a daisy. I call the walls mine because this is where I belong, at least for now. I am here alone. I don't know how I got here, or how long I have been here. But I do know, it's long enough to have become intimate with the details of the white-tiled floor, and marks left on a wall by three grubby fingers. I have had plenty of time to imagine the story of the person who was here before me, the one whose touch tarnished the smooth white walls.

A horizontal window stretches the length of the wall to my right. I cannot see through the window, but I assume the people on the other side can see me. The window is covered in mirror film, with the non-reflective side facing me. I keep staring in case this changes, but no, the window stays blackened. A slither of light where the film ends, just before the edge of the window, is sporadically filled with the red and blue and green of their clothes: I know they are there, on the other side, but I don't know who they are. I know they are watching me. Their attention also wanders. The dance of shadows on the window is erratic and unpredictable. They move to the rhythm of the waxing and waning of light on their side, and its relationship to the darkness on mine.

There is no ceiling above my four perfectly straight white walls. I am inside a ten-foot high house of cards; delicately balanced walls, dependent on each other for their verticality. Either the builder forgot to attach the roof, or the architect designed it this way to confuse me. While they watch me, I watch the clouds on their journey across the sky. Sometimes they are white and fluffy, at others, they are long and thin, like a scalpel slicing open a blanket of lazulite blue. It never rains. I am never cold. I must be in the desert. This assumption is a comfort; even if it is not the reality.

I need to get out of here. I begin to panic as I look around the room for the umpteenth time. The walls are too high to climb, there is no door, and the window is sealed. The walls have no ridges, no flaws; there isn't the slightest suggestion that they could be scaled. I keep staring at them in the hope that I will discover a hidden opportunity. None exists.

"Coooooooeeeeee," I shout to an undefined entity, as I learnt to do when I was lost in the bush as a child. The response comes immediately; the echo of my shrill call for attention reverberates around the walls.

I am briefly distracted by a thought: this space is somehow familiar, but I haven't been here before. I vaguely remember there being a cliff beyond the wall opposite the window, and a path leading down to the sea. When I was there, on the other side of the wall, I wanted to catch the bus, but I couldn't find the stop. Something's not right. Maybe this isn't the place by the sea?

After all, the clarity of the sky reflects a desert, not a sea. Then again, it doesn't matter, because they will not let me out. Sea or desert, it's all the same.

I see no birds in the sky, though they must exist. I turn around to find a green-grey splatter on the floor behind the chair; a bird flew over me while I was not looking.

Some time later, though I can't be sure how long, a table appears in the middle of my room, next to the bird shit. I must be dreaming. I stare at it, expecting it to disappear. The table is wooden--like my chair--and solid, with seams between planks so wide and so rough, it must have been made by hand. Like my chair, the table doesn't belong; it is from a different era, or perhaps a different country. Something's not right. The table is stained with blue ink. I close and open my eyes in quick succession. It is still there.

The table brings relief. I stand up, turn around, and examine it. I run my fingers across and around its ragged indentations. I sense its deepest secrets, relishing the charge of intimacy across my skin. On the underside, my fingers stick to a piece of bubblegum, and bending down, I see that it still has the prints of the one who was tired of chewing. The incisions on the tabletop tell someone else's story. Like a blind woman, I follow the narrative unfolding under my fingertips. The wood gives off a smell that suggests the table was caught in the rain. I look up to the sky and it looks back. It is a glorious, perfect blue. I am dizzy, and confused; these two intruders to my space--bird shit and table--cannot have fallen from an empty sky, surely? The pungent smell of mould makes me think the table was at home in a dark and damp basement. The table must feel as out-of-place as I do inside these four white walls, on a tiled floor, underneath a brilliant blue daylit sky. There is some comfort in my imagined camaraderie with the table; we are foreigners together.

I pull the chair to the table, sit down again, and with my finger, I trace a series of red pencil lines that have been carved into its surface.

Did the one who got sick of chewing his bubblegum make the cryptic lines in red? Is he a vandal? Or, has he left me a message in scratches on the table? Is he telling me how to get out of the room? The frustration of not understanding his message is worse than the incarceration. What if his message is not for me? Or maybe, there's no message in the red lines after all? They might be art. Or doodles made when he was on a tedious telephone call.

My heart races, I turn my head, from left to right and back again, looking for the answer I must have missed. "What is the message?" I ask the air that is my only listener.

I slump back in my chair.

I bend down and examine the red lines in search of their truth. The damp smell of the table that has been stored in a basement or caught in the rain becomes stronger in the stillness of daylight. The odor overwhelms me, even more so because of its discordance with the weather. The reek of the wood burns my lungs. I recoil, and am thrown back to the reality of the four white walls before the arrival of the table.

A chill passes over my exposed forearms. I feel them; they are close to the window, watching me explore the table. I cannot see them, but I feel their energy. Their shadows have become darker in spite of the bright daylight inside my four white walls. A ring of condensation has formed on my side of the window. I don't know how many of them created the heat; I just know they are there. And I know they are watching me. Am I an experiment? A human guinea pig, given a chair and a table with red lines carved by a vandal, expected to find a way out of a stark white room with no ceiling? Can they feel my desperation through the window?

If only I could remember how I got here.

Without warning, the sound of a high-pitched bell penetrates my room and my thoughts. I am startled, lose my balance, and nearly fall off the chair. The room is plunged into darkness.

A door opens where none had existed.

"Time to move, ma'am," yells a large man with a baseball hat and a ginger beard. He holds the door open. "Don't leave anything behind. Give the headset and number to the girl at the desk," he shouts.

I walk through the door and pull back the curtain. People in line, in groups of two, three and four, jostle to move forward, and to skip past those in front of them. Are they all lining up to enter the room I just left? I squeeze past them, dazed and confused.

I step into an enormous hall with rotating glass doors all along the opposite wall. The racing lights of a street catch on the doors as they turn endlessly, propelled by people shuffling in and out of the hall. There is no hill, no sea, and no bus stop on the other side of the doors. This is not how it should be.

I want to be sitting on my chair, at my desk, inside my four white walls.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A610843780