Choosing a Bed
by Sally Tottle
“Wake. Wake up.” A light hiss, a woman’s voice. A hand, gentle on her shoulder. “You’ve been noticed.”
Jess rolls out of the bed and stands. The hand, now grasping her elbow, has a steadying affect. Darkness all around, but the woman leading the way, wears a headtorch and Jess, in a stupor, finds herself being steered out of the bedroom. Her eyes gradually adjust - she can pick out unfamiliar grey shapes as they stumble through Livingroom Storage and Bathshop.
“Where are we going?”
“Not far. You’ll see.”
“Who are you?” The woman doesn’t look like security; her clothes are wrong.
The woman doesn’t answer.
At the far end of Workspaces, a circle of five chairs lit by a standard lamp. Three chairs are occupied, two are empty. Jess sits where she is led. The woman sits next to her and switches off her head torch.
In the chair in front of the lamp a man, lit from above. She can make out his features sharp as an axe, but not his colouring.
“Welcome to our group,” he says.
“Why did you bring me here?” Her voice is dry. Her heart pounds.
“For your protection. For the protection of us all.” He gestures around the circle. “We meet here from time to time, when there is something to discuss, when the rotas change, something new.” He leans forward slightly. “You are new.”
Coldness creeps up from the concrete floor through her socks. Jess begins to shiver. “I was asleep. Deep asleep.” This is true, she had been dreaming about Todd. She’d like to return to the dream, but you cannot pick up a dream where you left off. “I want to go back to my bed.”
“It’s not bed though, is it? Nothing here is owned by us. We are, at best, custodians. That is why you must attend meetings, to understand the rules and comply with them in the interests of our group. For example, you have been observed walking against the arrows. Walking against the arrows leads to more encounters; more encounters equate to heightened risk.” He leans back. “But I’m rushing ahead. We should introduce ourselves. My name is Sakarius.” He taps the man seated next to him with his foot.
“Arkelstorpp. Pleased to meet you.”
“Billy,” grunts the next man.
“Subna,” says the woman, removing her headtorch.
“I’m Jess,” Jess says - it seems expected.
“Jess may have been your outside name, your ‘before’ name. A name chosen for you by others. Here, we choose our own names. You will too. That can be your goal over the coming days. Don’t feel under pressure; here there is no rush. Wander through our space and see what name speaks to you, what name chooses you. I trust that you will find it an illuminating occupation.”
Sakarius takes possession of her bag and phone. Jess might have cared if the flask inside the bag had been full, and the phone charged. He continues to relay information about what they may and may not do, where they may and may not go at particular times, how to conduct themselves, how to stay below the radar, how to make the most of this opportunity. Jess feels paralysed. Her head seems solid, dense, the details do not penetrate. Her shivering becomes uncontrollable. Her hands sweat and her head throbs.
Eventually Sakarius says “This is much for you to assimilate. I can see that you are tired. We are all here, perhaps, because we are in some regards broken. Here, there is time for healing. For now, just focus on that and on finding your new name. Subna, tomorrow you may assist in making sure that procedures are fully understood by our new member.”
Back under the duvet, Jess still shakes, not from cold, not from fear, from something else. It is her third night. The first had been an accident. There’d been a row - a quiet row, after all, they’d been in a store. Choosing a bed, but something else going on beneath.She’d brought the flask with her, but only because you can’t rely on a store restaurant to serve adult drinks. Yes, she’d drunk too much but then she had been upset. Yes, like an idiot she must have fallen asleep on one of the beds, fallen out, woke up with her face in an unfamiliar rug, fluff up her nose. Embarrassing but not illegal, could make a funny anecdote in a few days, a few weeks, perhaps longer. Yes, she’d meant to ring Todd, perhaps say sorry, but there had been that string of ANGRY TEXTS. Yes, she bottled it, and when her phone ran out of charge, it had been a relief.
And yes, the second night had been a choice.
They sit on stiff yellow chairs with their backs to the toilets next to a window with a view over the carpark. They are hidden from customers arriving for a mid-morning snack by tall racks where used meal trays are left. It is the designated place. Subna retrieves an abandoned tray. Jess keeps reaching into her pocket for the phone that isn’t there, for the phone that, if it were there, would be out of charge. They nibble pieces of rejected doughnuts and Jess battles down the nausea. To take food discarded by others, Subna says, it is allowed. They are not thieves even if they had been before. Sometimes the pickings are satisfying. Family groups tend to overorder. The food is cold, but they may enjoy endless hot drinks. They must obey the arrows projected onto the floor from lights in the metal joists. There is a rota to minimise encounters with the same staff. Arkelstorpp devises the rotas. He used to work here. He knows how the cameras work too. “We can’t be too careful,” Subna adds. When the announcement of the store closing for the day is heard, they must find somewhere to hide – a roomy wardrobe, the self-serve furniture area – there are many options. And then, after the music has stopped and the arrows have gone, they find a bed. Bedding is to be left neatly the following morning.
“If you are peckish after dark, you may graze here.” She points out the two baskets of fresh fruit, a shelf stacked with biscuits and jams, and the chiller. “We need not become hungry.” She hands Jess a small wind-up torch in the shape of a ladybird. “It’s from Children’s Area.”
Jess puts it in her phone pocket. “Thanks.”
“You may wash your feet in the children’s sink. Subna points towards the toilets. Any paper towels need to be flushed away. Leave no evidence.”
“My hands keep shaking, but I’m warm,” Jess says. She found Billy, thin as a twig, lurking in a black kitchen. The tiles are black, the cupboards are black, there is a rectangular granite-topped black island in the middle. A pan has been glued to the hob.
“It’s the cold turkey. It’ll pass. Did for me. Took a while mind.”
“How did you choose your name, Billy? I found the bookcase. Do you like books? Did you used to like books?” Books here are in Swedish. There is nothing to read unless you are a Swede.
“It were the most normal name. That’s what I liked. Couldn’t even read half of them other names. No good at reading, me.”
“I see. We have a Billy bookcase in the front room.” Jess can visualise the assortment of cookery books, Greys Anatomy, novels, a couple of poetry anthologies given to her by her sister, Todd’s CD collection ordered chronologically from Purcell to Radiohead’s latest. “It is pretty solid.”
“Huh. Not like me then.”
“Billy.” She grips the side of the marble kitchen island, willing the hand-shaking to cease. “Why did your hands shake? Before.”
“Drugs. That’s what got me in here. Took too many I did. Got me in trouble. It’s not safe for me out there.” He gestures with his head towards the exit. “Made a few enemies. They’d kill me.” Billy makes another quick gesture, a gunshot to his head and smiles. His teeth are yellowy-brown.
“Oh. I see.” Jess grips the kitchen island more tightly, surfing a new wave of nausea. A couple squeeze past to inspect a cooker hood. “So how long. How long have you been here?” she whispers.
Billy shrugs. “I done three Christmases,” he says. “Listen, nice chatting but best split. Don’t want the big man to get mad. He don’t like us mingling between meetings, not unless it’s been agreed.”
“Wait! Wait!” panic catches in her throat. “How long. How long till the shaking stops?”
“Ooh, four days or so. You’ll start to feel better soon.”
Billy disappears behind racks laden with cutlery sets. Jess stares at her shaking hands. Perhaps drinking water would help. She releases her grip on the kitchen island and wobbles her way to the toilets, jostling with shoppers. Some, bearing lists, are brisk and focussed; others are listless and dazed. Inside the cubicle, she looks at her feet and listens to people coming in and going out. The sounds of urination, water from the taps, the roaring of the hand dryer, the flushing of toilets, feet on concrete floor, mothers talking to their children, tinny music playing on a loop round and round. She thinks about vodka; she thinks about Todd. Some tears splash onto her boots. The hand-shaking lessens. She needs to wash her socks and her pants too, perhaps after dark. Her teeth feel furry; she did find a toothbrush, but it had been glued to the inside of a glass.
Sharing a mid-morning forage with Subna has become routine. Today, on the tray lies an abandoned orange plastic baby spoon which they could appropriate, but Jess cannot find a reason for taking a baby’s spoon. For a while they say nothing. Subna dissects the last meat ball neatly and Jess eats the half which is nearest, then Subna takes the orange spoon and drops it into her pocket. Perhaps she will use it to eat yogurt from the chiller after dark - it would make a change from eating off a metal spoon.
Subna looks out of the window at grey drizzle spotting on concrete slabs. “Maybe I don’t deserve to feel weather on my face.”
“Why do you say that?”
A light whisper, a feather in the air. “I let my parents down.”
Outside, the corner of the carpark, a slice of the M62 clotted with lorries, a small pile of dirty litter nestling in a corner. Inside, a member of staff wearing a yellow top appears, spraying tables with disinfectant, wiping with an efficient sweep of the arm. His top is the colour of a lemon - this is the sort of detail Todd would have noticed. Todd notices subtle gradations of colour. They lower their heads until the member of staff is gone. Jess wraps her hand around a mug and hopes Subna might ask about her outside life. Finally, Subna does speak.
“Sakarius wants to know if you have any questions. About the rules.”
“I’m finding it hard to choose a name,” Jess says.
“Shame you can’t get a proper drink in here.”
“How many Christmases have you done Subna.”
“Your name. I haven’t seen it anywhere. How did you choose your name?”
Subna shrugs again.
“I found Billy – we’ve got one at home, and Arkelstorpp - a decent enough desk. £275. And Sakarius, a chair, a comfy one.”
“I don’t think they make mine anymore,” Subna says. “It was in Children’s Area, a fluffy flamingo. It was pink.” She blinks a few times then looks away again. Is she close to tears? Jess wants to ask about her original name, her outside name, but instead she pushes the plate of cold chips and congealed gravy towards Subna.
“I’m sorry,” Jess says without being certain what she is sorry about. “Sorry about the flamingo.” She takes a gulp of coffee. “I’m not sure I even want a new name.”
Subna stares again at the window and seems to catch a glimpse of her reflection. She turns to look directly at Jess. Her glazed eyes are chestnut brown; she touches her hair, it is long, black, glossy. “I used to keep my hair covered up. Before,” she says.
“Oh,” Jess says. “That’s nice.”
They are back in the circle. Arkelstorpp found a copy of the . Sakarius removes the front pages and thrusts them into a bin. To learn of the outside world can be unsettling. Billy is given the sport section, Jess receives the puzzle page – the date has been torn away, Subna receives the fashion column.
“So, a name. Has any item spoken to you?” Sakarius asks.
Jess tenses in the chair; she blinks at the semi-silhouette. “I like Jess. It’s always been my name. I don’t want to change it.”
“I don’t mind being Jessica if I really have to.” Her mother used to call her Jessica when she was disappointed. Dad called her Jessy, or my Jessy after he’d had a few. People she liked, they called her Jess.
“A new name will help you rebuild your identity. Perhaps you need more time. As an interim measure, you will be known as Vaska.”
The sign ‘Vaska’ is above a large wire crate near the entrance. The crate is full of voluminous yellow plastic bags with blue handles. Jess has seen Vaskas dragged around the store bulging with items: doorknobs, pillowcases, cheap picture frames. She has seen Vaskas abandoned in untidy heaps near the tills.
“OK,” she mutters.
“An interim measure,” Sakarius repeats.
They return to their beds.
It troubles Vaska, not knowing the time. That stern voice instructing shoppers to make their way to the checkout at the end of the day often comes as a surprise. Knowing the time becomes a goal. Vaska sets off, following the arrows and inspecting timepieces: office clocks, bedroom clocks, kitchen clocks. Mostly they insist that it is ten minutes after ten o’clock. A few offer different times but none seem plausible. She observes these rogue clocks until she has convinced herself that their hands never move.
In Livingroom Storage, she notices someone, a man. Could it be Sakarius? He sits motionless, perhaps asleep. Vaska has never seen Sakarius in daylight. She must not stare. She meanders through Home Organisation and gathers up a couple of short pencils and a handful of chits to record product details. That evening she listens out for the flapping of feet: Arkelstorpp runs through the store from entrance to checkout five times most nights. It is allowed to ignore the arrows after dark and to exercise at speed, should you feel the need. Vaska does not feel the need. After she has heard the feet for the tenth time, she retreats under the duvet, winds up her torch, retrieves the chits and the pencil.
Started diary. Headache better.
Vaska returns the chit and pencil to the bottom drawer by her bed. The chits are concealed beneath a Swedish book about wildflowers.
Wet outside. Two umbrellas in café. Left them for lost property
Nothing special. Slept ok. Subna says I can share her hairbrush - maintaining outside grooming standards keeps us safe! Still no new name.
Looked through posters in Market Hall wondering where I would like to go with Todd one day. One day, when I am ready.
For days she hoped a name would choose her, but it is time to be methodical. Vaska begins her search at the Entrance, inspecting each tag on her journey, following the arrows and the flow, resisting the shortcuts: She considers Alex, a desk, but a normal name has already been taken by Billy. Perhaps Snuttig, a fluffy polar bear – but she likes the bear more than the name. She arrives at Bedroom: Todd liked Sagstua; she preferred Tarva. Iron versus pine. She doesn’t linger. Vallentuna sounds exotic, but Vaska doesn’t feel exotic. Often the name and the product don’t seem to belong together. Perhaps something she might have purchased with Todd for her before life? But nothing comes to mind and Vaska’s search continues into Bathshop…
Period started. Sakarius let me have three pound coins for the machine. MY OWN MONEY!!!
Tomorrow is the meeting to announce my new name. Asked Subna to ask Sakarius for more pounds.
“So, you have chosen.”
Can he see her nodding? She feels her stomach clench like when she was a shepherd in the school nativity.
“And?” Sakarius asks, his voice rich and low.
“Almarren. I choose Almarren as my inside name.” She feels his smile although she cannot see it.
“A mixer tap. Stainless steel. Excellent. You have chosen water over wine.” They mark the occasion by sharing two cans of sparkling lingonberry juice. Subna pours the liquid into five budget tumblers.
“Well done,” Arkelstorpp says, chinking glasses.
“Took a while,” Billy says, passing round a bag of crisps.
Saw Todd’s T-shirt, the one I bought for his birthday. For a moment I thought it was him. I hid behind a bookcase, That’s how I know that I’m not ready yet.
Billy has toothache. Sakarius gave him 2 of MY paracetamol
Saw a guide dog. Didn’t get to stroke it.
Saw Arkelstorpp in the kiddy wigwam reading books. Billy says he’s teaching himself Swedish!
“Billy told me Arkelstorpp got the sack,” Almarren says.
“Billy sometimes lies.” Subna picks up a ceramic pepper grinder, puts it down again.
“Why would he do that?”
Subna says nothing.
“What do you miss, Subna. From outside?”
Subna looks around, her face empty. They are in a kitchen diner; the table is set for six. Matching red wine glasses, two low hanging pendant lights, rattan mats. Did Subna hear the question? Usually at least she shrugs.
“It’s nice here. Clean, tidy, no dust,” Subna eventually says. Then she looks out into Bathroom Zone and gazes up at the strip lighting. “Stairs,” she adds, “I think I might miss stairs.”
New flavour crisps in café – pork and pickled onion. Acceptable.
Transvestite in café. I think maybe Subna is depressed.
Found hair bobble in toilets. Keep my hair tied back now. Billy says Arkelstorpp is learning to juggle.
Nothing. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? I miss Todd, but does he miss me?
There are two sorts of houseplant: plastic and living. Almarren likes to sit near the living plants. They were watered yesterday. No staff will visit today – it is allowed to linger. The dark green glossy leaves remind her of images of the Costa Rican holiday they’d planned. Todd says breathing near plants helps them grow - not much, just a tiny bit. Almarren breathes in and out as slowly and deeply as she can without feeling dizzy and imagines her exhaled breath nourishing the greenery. From behind a Swiss cheese plant there is a view of people passing through the store and she notices couples. Some walk hand-in-hand with fingers entwined; others walk in tandem but still seem connected; sometimes the woman has a bulging belly and an attentive partner; sometimes there’s a sense of strain between the two, but there are never rows. A frail elderly couple seeming out of place are swept along in the flow; they lean together, and it looks as if either or both might fall if they didn’t have the support of each other.
She’s not against going to Relate. She’d be prepared to discuss it, and even A.A. Perhaps she doesn’t need A.A. anymore - it’s hard to tell in here.
Fleecy jacket left in café, size 16. Purple. MY COLOUR. Sakarius said it’s a better fit for Subna
Nothing special. Washed pants.
In the café a woman two tables away wears a vivid scarf. She could easily leave without it. Almarren is surprised at what she now hopes for. She worries about blood soaking through the wad of toilet paper in her pants.
“I need coins again.” She takes a sip of coffee. Subna drinks peppermint tea and doesn’t touch the remnants of marble cake. “Will you ask for me?”
There is a pause. “Ok.”
A thought suddenly strikes. “Subna, why don’t you need pound coins?”
No shrug, just silence.
Almarren reaches out to touch Subna’s hand and Subna allows it to remain there until she takes a serviette to blot away some tears.
Subna is pregnant!!! I think S is the father, but she won’t say.
Store busy. Is it the weekend?
Store busy again. It might be Sunday. Billy says Sakarius used to be a vicar!!
Looked through posters in Market Hall. Nothing new.
They gather in the small pool of light.
“Your daily notes have been discovered and destroyed.”
This is expected. Almarren noticed their absence that evening. Have they been read?
“It was private,” she says.
“There is no reason to count the days.” Sakarius’ voice is low and controlled. “You will be reminded of arrangements for meetings. Our way is a refuge from the tyranny of time.”
They return to their beds.
More days pass - a carrousel. For a while, Almarren has not heard the music. Now, she barely sees the people, though she notices their clothing: joggers, jeans, jeggings, coats, coatigens. Iced ginger biscuits appear in the restaurant, but no mince pies yet. Perhaps there will be stollen. Then one day there are small bottles of glühwein on the shelves. Almarren stares at them knowing what they contain, what they represent, noticing that they have lost their gravity, that they are just bottles which she will not drink from. It is a relief. She smiles and it feels like her face has not smiled for a long time.
It comes from behind in the middle of the night: a hand over her mouth, an iron arm tight round her middle. Almarren cannot move, it is a struggle to breathe - his breath smells of salmon fillets. It is not pleasant. It is not a surprise. It is not as terrible as the worst she feared. It is over when he comes out of her, rolls away, and disappears into darkness.
The next day she wishes she’d imagined it, but there is bruising, and she knows she did not.
She wishes she could forget.
She steals. She is glad to steal because something has been stolen from her. She steals a pack of four marker pens from Home Organisation. After dark and before sleep, Almarren makes marks on the bedframe below the mattress - ink soaks into the pine slats: black for a day passed, blue for a meeting, red for the other thing. She cannot conjure a reason to use green.
Occasionally, she catches sight of her reflection; mirrors are hard to avoid. She still recognises herself and this is faintly surprising. Christmas decorations dominate the shelves; the store is busier than ever. Almarren uses an extra duvet at night and wears a Leeds United woolly hat found in Lighting and Sound – Todd supports United. Her socks grow thin; notches under the bedframe multiply; Subna’s belly swells.
Almarren shuffles out of the toilets near the entrance. Shoppers spun into the store through the revolving door cluster near crates containing discounted strings of lights. For some reason - perhaps she still can sense his presence - she lifts her head slightly. In a flash, she takes it all in – Todd has a new leather jacket and an earring; he is with another woman. He is happy.
Briefly, their eyes connect, but she is already shaking her head before he says the word.