CURATED: The Control Room

By Claire Bassi.

Outside, a warm yellow rain is starting to batter the dying leaves of the birches and the wind is picking up again. Inside, it’s freezing and calm, a new numbness creeping over us now it’s finally done. I look at the map pins piercing London and try to picture the modernist semi with a sunlit porch full of spider plants and school shoes, undisturbed, forever preserved in the summer of ‘82. I turn to Gregor, with his ashtray of half-smoked cigarettes, his stack of damp ledgers, but he doesn’t seem aware of me. His finger traces across the British Isles, the coast outlined in white like a fallen body, and he hums tunelessly.

A code is repeated on the wireless and I snatch up the receiver, recite our location, but I don’t think they can hear me. The tapping of Morse code echoes in the pipes above our heads reminding us we’re not alone down here. I reach for a brown ale and search my desk drawer for the bottle opener, tipping out dishes of treasury tags and ballpoint pens. Gregor is at his desk, picking at the blistered paint around the air vent, saying they should have checked in by now, there should be messages. I take out a photograph and prop it against the silent telephone; she looks sporty with her towelling shorts and high ponytail. I chew a couple of pills that taste of lemon barley and fresh summer grass. Then I’m lying on the warm concrete of home, looking into the sun.

The radio starts up its electronic static gabble again and I’m suddenly awake, unsure if I’ve slept for an hour or a day. The air-conditioner rumbles, its motor grinds and stops. I think I can hear bells in the distance; maybe church bells because it’s Sunday. There are cockroaches running along the pipes; they seem to be coming from the cabinet in the corner. I’ve never opened it because I don’t know the code. Gregor is arranging playing cards on his desk: clubs, spades, diamonds, hearts. There are cockroaches floating in his half-pint glass. He drinks the beer and pulls at his eyelashes. He tells me he failed his chemistry exam twice and still they let him into college; I act surprised, though he’s told me before. We eat. We sleep.

Today there’s a message on the radio that says the wind has changed direction. I’ve taken off my jacket and it hangs like a shed skin on the back of my chair. My breath is short and my mind is full of fire and ash. The tins ran out a few days ago and our lockers are empty. Gregor is on the camp bed, sweating and swearing, slapping at fleas. I was always so afraid of the sickness, but never considered this.  I take the bottle opener and get to work on the cabinet door. 

The radio is silent. There are no more clicks or sounds in the pipes. Beads of water have settled on the drab olive walls and I’m tempted to lick them. Gregor says he won’t be coming with me because he’s due to retire in a year and he’ll stick it out. He has a nice holiday home back in the Welsh hills. He was given a job to do and he’ll do it well. I push on anyway, beating the cabinet until the latch buckles and breaks.

The door swings open and I take out a duffel bag. Inside, there’s a decaying food ration, a Russian dictionary, a dosimeter and a single gasmask. I pack the photograph, but leave Gregor the pills and tell him I’ve enjoyed his company. He smiles and says it was his pleasure. I face the door and prepare myself to meet the countryside blackness, the Soviet landscape and our so-called enemies.

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