Shifa’s love of experimental fiction and feminist theory have contributed to the conception of ‘Womb’, a serialized novel to be featured here once every
two weeks week. Here’s chapter one.
The building I wait in is outside the main grounds. I have been told I have to be ‘cleared’ before I am allowed in. I don’t know what to expect. I am sweating profusely; I can’t tell whether it’s from the heat or the nervousness.
The door to my right opens and a woman in white walks in. She consults a clipboard and asks for my name. I give it and she makes a tick. She asks me if I am aware of the rules of the institution. I nod. She asks me if I have read the disclaimer over carefully. I nod. She asks me if I’ve signed it. I nod.
My heart flutters nervously as the procedure begins. She asks me if I am carrying anything I shouldn’t be—any books? any magazines? any letters? Illicit substances? Alcohol? I shake my head.
Then, she asks me to hand over my phone. She smiles as if to reassure me, but I am far from reassured. I cling to the phone a second longer than necessary and her grip over it gets tighter, firmer. Her lips purse and her smile disappears for a second. Then, suddenly, and with a force I do not expect, the phone is out of my hands and there is nothing I can do about it. The retreat has rules, but I have never been comfortable with rules.
We are allowed no watches at the retreat. All sense of time is kept strictly at bay. We are allowed no calendars, no newspapers, no electronic gadgets. We are not allowed to have visitors and we are not allowed contact with the outside world. All our activities are strictly monitored.
I watch through the large windows as the little red car that brought me here drives away, my mother waving from the window, smiling as if she doesn’t suspect a thing. Every bit of it is a lie. I am surrounded by lies I have always been surrounded by lies. I sigh and I follow the attendant inside.
She calls over another one and together, they both dig through my meager luggage, making sure I have no contraband with me. They find my medicine pouch, and their grubby fingers start to dig through it. I cringe.
MY STUFF, I want to scream, but I don’t. My leg starts to twitch.
“These will have to be confiscated,” one of them looks up at me. She is a stern looking old woman. I hate her on sight.
“That’s my insulin. I need that. I’m a juvenile diabetic.”
Twitchtwitchtwitchtwitchwitchwitchwitch—my leg is on fire.
She frowns and takes a closer look.
“In that case, we’ll take them. Just ask us for them whenever you need them.”
Twitchtwitchtwitchtwitchwitchwitchwitch—my leg is on fire.
FUCK YOU, I want to yell, but I don’t. Instead, I allow my leg to twitch.
“Take it,” I nod. “But I’ll have to ask for it after every meal and at night before I go to bed. I’ll need to check my sugar levels often so I’d like to be able to keep my blood sugar monitor.”
Both are taken away and a small black device is strapped to my arm, tight. I am warned never to attempt to take it off.
My other luggage is returned to me. I am asked to take it to my room. I am allowed an hour’s worth of relaxation, in which I am to take a shower, change and can look around the grounds if I choose to. I am told to keep my appointment with my wellness supervisor when the hour is up. Missing it can have consequences, I am told.
I twitch. “You’ve taken my phone,” I say. “How am I supposed to tell the time?”
The attendants look at me blandly. “The device around your wrist will beep and light up when you are expected at appointments. The screen will display the room you’re supposed to report to” the stern woman says.
The look in her eyes sends pain like the blade of a knife down my back. It is a look that says someone is always watching.
I nod and I twitch.
The room I am told to make my way to is tiny. I open the door and I am greeted by blast of cold air. I instantly start to shiver. I look around for the source of the blast, but fail to find it. There is a single bed over in the far corner of the room, and the mattress, when I test is, is hard as a rock. A single bleached white sheet is stretched taunt against it, with a white duvet on top. I bend my head to take a quick sniff. It smells faintly chemical. The whole room smells faintly chemical. There is no furniture apart from the bed, a bedside table and a wardrobe. There is a single sleek light fitting that hangs from the ceiling.
I make my way into the bathroom. It is just as cold. There is no mirror above the sink. The commode is a western-style one, so bright it almost sparkles. There is a health faucet. I look around to check but there is no toilet paper. This is unacceptable—I make my mind up to demand for it later. After inspecting the toiletries I run the shower. The sweat from outside has chilled on my body. But the water, when I get under is, is almost too hot to bear and there are no knobs to control the temperature. The soap sets my skin to tingling when I scrub it in. It is a strange, unpleasant feeling. I clench my teeth hard. All else is uneventful, and quiet, quite still.
I have been sitting in this room for what feels like an eternity already. It is cold, so cold, and I am shivering, clutching the soft white duvet to my body. I can tell it is late afternoon from the quality of light filtering through my window. My beeper is silent and this is causing me some distress. It feels like an hour has passed already—no, more than that. I wonder anxiously whether my sense of time has already started to slip. It should have beeped ages ago, I feel sure. Unable to sit in my room worrying about it anymore, I get up and go outside.
The grounds are large and unexpectedly cold, like the room. I cannot see a boundary wall in any direction. I start walking at random, but there is something strange nagging at me—something I cannot quite put my finger on. Something essential is missing. The absence struggles to make itself felt, and then suddenly, it hits me—the expanse I see before me is all white. It is startling in its intensity. Colour has been leached from the world. I look up and around, searching for the tops of trees, but I see nothing apart from an expanse of clear white sky. I cannot see the sun anywhere. It is an ominous feeling. There are no plants at my feet, no grass, no soil; everything has been paved with a white material like cement. I strain my ears but hear no birds, no squirrels. I realize then the sound of white is silence.
A flash of movement to my right causes me to look. There is a man in a white coat walking briskly towards me. A look of recognition colours his features for a fraction of an instant. The hairs at the back of my neck stand on end, a wave of nausea threatens to overwhelm me.
Suddenly, there is a shrill ring in my head, so loud I clap my hands to my ears. My beeper has gone off, I realize, the screen reads 404. I take a step backwards, spin around, and hurry off in the direction of the main building.
My skin is still winter-pale, freezing to the touch. My breath comes in short bursts. It is cold, so cold. Inside the main building, there is no one else around. I have seen no other clients my short time here. I find the door marked 404 and enter.
Inside the room, there is a desk. Behind it sits the man in the white coat. He smiles and gestures for me to take a seat.
Read chapter three here.