The day I started my jail sentence, I occupied one of the largest prison cells a criminal probably ever had. You’re probably thinking of some kind of small island, surrounded by treacherous unswimmable waters, a castaway custody.
Not even close.
My cell – if you could even call it that – is more akin to an IKEA warehouse. I’m almost certain it measured 365 metres square, a metre for each day of my twelve-month-long sentence. The floor is spongy like the surface of an athletics track, or a kid’s playground, the high walls soft-padded and unrippable, the material of the roof which rose perhaps a hundred metres above me, I cannot yet say.
The crime for which I have been convicted I am still unaware; all I know is that it has been classified as exempt. It comes under new legislation dictating a variety of offences against the state, of which even the disclosure of their existence would be enough to undermine our national security.
I know it must be a crime of my past because I have been under such a level of surveillance for the past five years of my life that I had become afraid to leave my house. My mobile phone had been confiscated and I had no access to the web, not even the bare skeleton of the internet the state deemed appropriate for its other citizens.
They came to my door that morning, told me I was under arrest, that the exempt nature of my crime was such that I could not be provided with any charge sheet, any witness statements, or a scintilla of information about the crime of which I was accused.
I was taken to the court on Green Street, hog-tied and hooded in the back of a prison van – where in front of three judges and no jury – I was convicted without anything resembling a trial.
“A Minister of the Government,” he said, “is satisfied that the crime is an exempt crime. It is of sufficient sensitivity and seriousness to justify its certification as such.”
The presiding judge explained how they had already considered all the evidence and had come to a unanimous decision of my guilt. I asked if I could make a plea of innocence but was told this was not allowed for, because it could lead to public disclosure of details of what I was alleged to have done.
I said this seemed unlikely given there was nobody in the courtroom apart from me, the three bewigged and masked judges, and three heavily armed police officers in riot gear. There were no members of the public, no newspaper reporters, not so much as a stenographer.
The presiding judge ordered me to remain silent, else I would have to be hooded. Given there was nobody there to hear any further entreaties I might make, I thought it wiser to follow his instructions.
“Due to the nature of these crimes,” the presiding judge said, “we have decided upon a one year sentence of immurement.”
I have to confess I did not know what immurement meant. I presumed it was some medieval legalese for imprisonment, perhaps like so much of the state’s more recent law written in a legalistic manner that was designed to be as incomprehensible and vague as possible.
One year, I thought, I can manage that. I’ve been a prisoner of my own home this past two years, so what difference will it make? Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t know the meaning of the word immurement, for it gave me an extra few weeks of peace before I began to understand.
My prison cell – you are probably wondering how I knew its exact dimensions.
After my trial, they put me back in the prison van, hooded me, zip-tied my ankles, and cuffed my hands tightly behind my back. They left me prone on the bare floor so that I struggled not to roll from one side to the other as they sped away from the special court on Green Street.
I tried to gauge the direction of our travel. I knew the streets of the city well from my olden days as a journalist. I reckoned we were headed northbound up Dorset Street, towards Drumcondra. Altogether, we travelled perhaps twenty or twenty five minutes, and I was almost sure I could hear the faint sound of a jet engine meaning the airport was not too far away.
We came to a halt at last, and I was hauled into my cell by two officers of the law.
They laid me on the floor, removed my restraints and told me to leave my hood on. I was not to remove it until I heard a buzzing noise, which came, I would guess, ninety seconds or so later, each counted as best I could in my mind.
I sat up, my arms and legs aching, my heart palpitating, and took the hood off after the unmistakable sound of the buzzer came.
I found myself in what seemed like a vast depot; easily the size of an aircraft hangar. It was entirely empty except for a fixed rubber bed in the centre, a rubber pillow, and a blanket made of some near-gossamer-like material that would tear like paper under any kind of stress. There was an adult-sized potty, in which I presumed I was supposed to relieve my bodily needs. The floor was flat and entirely uniform but for a single square red concave tile with a plug hole in its centre.
I set out to explore my cell, walking the full extent of its perimeter. I did not know its dimensions yet, except that it was huge. Its precise size did not yet seem important. I had no exact sense of what time it might be but that it must be early evening by now. My stomach rumbled as I’d eaten nothing since breakfast and I wondered if they planned to feed me.
An hour – or two – or maybe three – passed. I burnt up my nervous energy walking laps of the cell and eventually lay down upon the rubber bed. I could feel my panic rising, my mind dizzied by the vastness of the room. I closed my eyes, and tried some meditation, concentrating on my breath. Filling my lungs through my nose for four seconds, holding my breath for eight more, and then exhaling slowly out of my mouth. It steadied me. A little. And I think I may even have dozed for a few minutes.
I could hear a faint whirring above me, my eyes quickly opening to see what was happening. There was something descending towards me through a small opening in the roof. As the object came closer, I could see it was a drone, its rotors spinning to a blur.
Over some kind of public address system, a voice boomed from every direction towards me, saying: “Do not approach the drone. Stand-to at your bed.”
I obeyed, and as the drone came in to land at the centre of the red concave square, I could see it was carrying food, and for that I was thankful.
In those first weeks, I was not sure if I would remain alone. The legislation for exempt crime was only newly inked, and this enormous cell was fit to house a dozen men, or a hundred, or even more; there was certainly room enough.
What concerned me most the first night was something much more prosaic. Years of surveillance had driven me indoors, and my doctor had prescribed me a high dose anti-depressant so that I might conquer my agoraphobia. It never did work as intended but it was the only thing that got me to sleep at night. Once, my doctor had suggested trying a different medication but the transition was too abrupt. And during a hellish week of insomnia, sweating, shaking, and despair, my dependence on the drug became all too apparent.
I walked the perimeter of the cell once again to see if I could determine where the voice had come from but there was no obvious source.
“I need to see a doctor,” I said, at first in a tone best described as conversational. But by the ninth or tenth time I repeated it, my voice had become shrill and I felt sure I would pass out as my head began to spin. I started to run, circuit after circuit of the cell, until all I could do was collapse on the hard rubber bed.
I think perhaps I fooled myself that if I physically exhausted myself, then my body would have to succumb to sleep. If only it were so simple. I lay in my bed, shifting from one side to another, trying every technique I could think of to bring myself rest: slowing my breathing, picturing myself on an empty Atlantic beach, counting sheep, even praying to a god I had no faith in. But escape, it would not come.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning – I’m only guessing maybe two or three am – a thunderous noise filled the room, the sound of cranks and engines, as if I were inside a foundry. The walls were nearly 200 metres from my bed but I felt full sure they were moving. It was too early for this level of withdrawal from my medication but for the first time in my life, I wondered if I was in the midst of hallucinating.
I suppose I slept an hour, or two, or three perhaps, splintered sleep that felt like it did nothing to ease my fatigue. The low lighting of the room never changed so all sense of time was lost until the hatch in the roof opened and a drone descended with some breakfast. I took it, just by logic, that it was morning time.
My food, it came on a tray, which I would later discover was completely unbreakable. There was never any crockery or cutlery, and whatever food they served, I had to eat it with my hands. They served me only water, and it too, came in an already-opened bottle of some substance that I was never strong enough to break or tear.
When I was done, I would return the tray to the square where the drone would come to collect it. The same procedure I was told to follow for my bodily waste.
There was one small mercy each day when the drone would descend to a height of about three metres above the red square. It carried a tank beneath it, with, I guess, thirty or forty litres of warm soapy water, enough for me to wash myself thoroughly.
The second night was one of pacing, sweating, dizziness, and jitters until the crashing noise of machinery once again resounded. I was alert enough to make it to the wall itself and it seemed clear that they were moving, millimetre by millimetre, so imperceptibly that it felt like an illusion even as you pressed against them. Was I just imagining it?
The next morning after my breakfast hovered in, I thought on how I might measure the area of the room in a way accurate enough to be confident about. If I circumambulated counting my feet, one in front of the other, that could at least give me a sense of its size. Two or three times, I made it at least half way around but it was hard to keep my mind restful enough to keep track of the numbers.
Day after day, as I struggled through the despair of withdrawal and the impossibility of my situation, I could never still my brain sufficiently to make a faultless count. Every night, the deafening noise would come but the cell was so large, it was hard to say with certainty it was shrinking.
I will say it was six weeks in, though it could have been more or it could have been less, for I had no way to mark the days and had spent weeks fighting the relentless confusion of insomnia and the chemical imbalances of my brain.
I think for the first time I began to feel as if whatever terror I faced each day was no longer the result of the abrupt discontinuation of my medicine. My mind sharpened, as sleep came a small bit easier, apart from the nightly interruption.
The cell felt smaller but I had no yardstick against which to judge it. It might not have been hallucination, simply an habituation, or another manifestation of my latent panic. Perhaps, the noise, excessive as it seemed, was just a subtle form of psychological torture.
I finally made a lap of the room and became certain my figures were close to correct. By my reckoning, it was around 4,252 of my feet and when I repeated the circuit, it came in at 4,243. I knew that my clownish feet – a size eleven, as measured in my country – were just a little short of an imperial foot in length.
In the days that followed, my counting became more accurate so that the two measurements I would take did not differ by more than one or two units. And what was also clear was that the room was shrinking – by just over three feet in length, and three feet in width with every passing day.
The calculations I will not repeat, for they almost drove me mad, but I became convinced that the room had started out at 365 metres wide and 365 metres in length, and was closing in around me at the rate of exactly one metre daily.
I have written this story so many times in my mind because that is all I can do.
In my recent past life, I had shut myself away but despite the loneliness, I still had books, television, and music as my companions. I used to force myself to take a walk each day, a kilometre or two, doing laps of my block so I never got too far from home, if the urges of my anxiety got too much for me.
In my cell now, there was not so much as a letter of the alphabet to read. The cell was silent throughout the day but for the cacophony of the walls moving each night. I came to cherish the times the voice would give me instruction, for it seemed my only tenuous grasp on the outside world.
I filled the days with exercise as best I could, running laps of the cell, doing press-ups, and sit-ups, and whatever other strength work a person could figure out with only his body and a wall. It got me physically fit; I’ll say that much.
Mentally though, no two days were the same. There is only so much exercise a body can do. There are only so many hours you can force yourself to stay asleep, only so many minutes you can stay in meditation. I got better at all of those things but twenty four hours is a long time without so much as a newspaper or radio.
I think most of all I missed the sound of the human voice and music. I would have given anything for just a half hour a day of 36’s Tomorrow’s Explorer, some Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze – just something for my mind to cling tightly onto.
Thoughts stayed endlessly enduring in my head, impossible to shift, cycling back and forth – like the measurements of the room, of what my ex-wife was doing now, of language and numbers and how they came be, of regrets, but most of all, of the meaning of the word immurement.
I thought of words like immobilise, and immovable, and immolate. I remembered that the word mur meant wall in French. And this word immurement, which I took at first to mean imprisonment, began to ricochet around my mind like a ping pong ball.
At night, I dreamt of being entombed, in coffins, in elevators, in caves, in catacombs, in spaceships. There seemed to be an infinity of places in which I could be entrapped. And then, my nightmare would come to a halt with the grinding racket of machinery as the very walls that surrounded me centimetred still closer.
If a normal man were to enter my cell, he might find its vastness a moment disconcerting. Yet for me, it was shrinking and I came to understand the meaning of subjectivity as that room shrank ever more to be a sarcophagus.
There were two conflicting parts in my mind. The one where I would be set free when my cell measured one metre squared, a miniscule four hundred centimetres in perimeter. And there was the second where that final night, those walls would move one last time until I was turned into a pulp of bone and viscera.
Those two ideas waxed and waned from day to day, from night to night.
There were times I grew desperate. I knew there was no avenue of escape; there was not even an idea for escape. And so, I began to dwell on how I might leave only my physical remains in the room.
It is enough to briefly describe just two such attempts, the first when I tried to tear my flimsy blanket and bind it into something stronger so that it might be enough to squeeze the life out of me. The drone hovered down from the roof, shot a projectile at me, and I did not wake for many hours.
A second time, I’d almost lost my mind and took to diving headfirst to the floor, hoping it might eliminate my consciousness. I have already told of how the surface was a spongy material, of the type you might find on a tartan track or a kid’s play area and caused little more damage than a graze. Again, the drone descended on me and fired a projectile. This time, whatever tranquilisation it contained must have been stronger and I awoke in such misery – my head pulsing with an agony never imagined, let alone experienced – that I never tried anything like that again.
The days passed at an almost unbearably slow pace. There is a part of me that wished to slow time so that my final day of immurement does not arrive. There is the other part that wishes the days would speed by because, what difference does it make?
My cell dwindles.
What once was large enough to house a passenger aircraft becomes a modest warehouse, then the size of a suburban church. I do more and more laps each day as I run but am now afraid to measure the perimeter.
And still it dwindles. Now just the floor area of an average semi-detached house, much like the one I used live in. Empirically, I know the size of my cell but my mind tells me otherwise; that it’s shrinking ever faster, that the walls close in open me, that this claustrophobia I feel must be real.
I have written this story so many times in my mind but in truth, I am barely capable of formulating my thoughts.
The cell measures five metres by five metres, a comfortable room in the psyche of a well-adjusted individual. There is no longer enough room to run, so I pace about its perimeter hoping to walk myself into oblivion.
The walls feel constantly in motion, as if I am caught in an illusion by Escher. The roof still rises far above me so that it feels like I’m in a chimney and its very verticality stirs in me an awful vertigo so that any sense of equilibrium is lost.
The final day looms and I know even if I walk free, I will not recover. I thought I was already broken. The naivety of that thought.
The cell measures two by two metres now. I try to see if I can use the corner for leverage to climb. I scarcely get off the ground before the drone hovers ominously towards me, the whirring of its rotors echoing in the towering shaft.
Sometimes, a relief of sorts comes over me that one way or the other, this is next to over.
Had I slept? I do not know. It is an indeterminate hour of the morning when the clangour of the walls begins. The noise is indescribable now, and I have to cover my ears as if caught in the wake of a jet engine.
The motion of the walls is so obvious now. One metre out of 365 is almost imperceptible. One metre out of two; I need not say any more.
I wonder again if I am hallucinating as the roof appears to be moving towards me. I must be imagining it and all I can do is lie on the ground in a foetal position, and scream. The walls push against me and there is no way for me to stretch to even nearly my full length. When I come back to some borderline-coherence, my cell is now a cuboid – one metre by one metre by one metre. All I can do is sit against the wall, my knees tucked against my chest, my head nodding, my heart skipping, a picture of insanity.
That single day felt almost as long as the preceding year. I tried everything I could, counting slowly, breathing slowly, reciting the alphabet, trying to remember the lyrics of songs I had not heard in years. There were times my panic would ease, as my body ran itself dry, but no sooner had the adrenaline replenished, then it flooded through my veins again.
The clanking of the mechanism came eventually, the noise far greater than my screams. I could feel the walls and ceiling moving, pushing against me until there was nowhere else for me to go. The pressure began to build, pushing down on me, pushing at the side, pushing in every direction. I tried to console myself with the thought it would soon be over but the truth was it was going to be slow.
Time seemed warped, stopped almost, as my body began to be crushed. My screams now were not of insanity, but pain.
And then it stopped. A hatch in the roof opened.
“Mr Foxe, your sentence is complete.”
First published in Black Sheep, Unique Tales of Terror and Wonder No. 4. If you want to support the publishers, you can buy the original print edition on Amazon.