Passing Time

Not knowing the time… time becomes interminable… You don’t know how long before six thirty the sun comes up; I mean, how many of us really know the time the sky begins to lighten? Without a watch on your wrist, without a clock on the wall, without a laptop, phone or tablet to consult, without even a stranger to accost on the street from whom one might beg a courtesy, how can you tell the difference between ten minutes and an hour… if boredom, focusing the mind upon nothing at all, extends time, and distraction, all but obliterating the mind, diminishes it, then ten minutes in ‘reality’, becomes millennia, and if ten minutes does such damage, then what of an hour, a day… gods forbid a year or more?

How many thoughts can a man of [assumed] intellect (let’s say a ‘contemplative man’), in time interminable… infinite. So, while time may not have been eternal, and thoughts may not have been infinite, some few considerations did flicker and dance past the dim, clarity of the minds’ eye.

Time had passed, in this place’s incremental way (although so slowly as to have seemed to be all but standing still). Time between the sky beginning to lose its delicious, dark, depths and six thirty… How did I know it was six thirty? On the wall a list stated the times in the day when certain events would take place, but what if it lied? I had no way to verify the veracity of its claims, I had no way to measure this truth; it might have been six, it might have been seven, it might even have been the middle of the night and some fool had painted a polluted sunrise on the insides of the windows; there was simply no way to know.

For the moment let’s assume it was six thirty (and it doesn’t really matter because whether six thirty, six or seven, on the dot, time has passed and all such rapidity or sluggishness are but perspectives of an overactive mind), and it’s time to get up. Again, an impotent struggle: for almost the whole rest of each day a small hard plastic stool rising just a foot and a half would be my only companion, but for more time to pass, to further my cause, I would have to leave the mild discomfort of the board that was my bed, but that meant nearly sixteen hours of similar incapacities, but in a far less comfortable (and I use that term purely relatively), but again all this becomes irrelevant, because almost all choice has been removed from the environment: much as I can’t choose time to race or meander, nor could I choose to remain in bed or rise and perch!

Before we are allowed to bruise our buttocks upon unyielding plastic (and if humiliation were any longer a concern here it would be concentrated into a tight little knot, for the seats we are provided with are yellow, orange or pink and decorated by small caricatures of small animals, each with a speech bubble informing the children more appropriately sitting upon them of some [ironically] moral imperative), we must make our bed. The bed being a board, generously covered by a quarter inch mattress so well used it seems if there was any original stuffing is had been slowly rolled out by the endless numbers of previous guests. Covering this attempt at a mattress is a sheet, which doesn’t quite cover the board; this sheet absolutely MUST be wrinkle free and as flat as Coleridge’s ocean. Above this our ‘all-weather’ mattress (so thick it might withstand the rigors of a bitter winter, being used in a summer reaching thirty-eight degrees), must be folded in a complex, perfect, and utterly useless fashion. This is not true; the use lies in the imposition of control… there are so very few things for us to do; how can the guards exert their authority? So, they take every miniscule opportunity, every cough and splutter of an event, they demand respect and obedience (obedience, yes, unless you are very determined and fatalistic, respect… impossible, and in this manner, amusing, if only you were not the recipient of such paltry desperation). You dropped a hair; pick it up! Don’t scratch your nose without permission! If I say the sky is green, then the sky is green!

So they feed us… farcical if not so tragic, but then all the best tragedy is based in comedy. We must line up, stand to attention, and call out escalating numbers one after another, turn in unison, and march to the refractory (Can they not count to thirty? Are we in military training? Conversation is a crime?) On the way in we, clutching our plastic bowls and spoon, try to avoid burning our hands as they spoon a large ladle-full of cabbage slop and [literally] gruel into the sheer receptacles and drop a hard bun on the top. The smile of generosity lighting the face of the serving guy is something to be treasured; like some benevolent ruler he dispenses his alms amongst the poor and basks in their loving gratitude… but that is the thing: they do love him! This is one of the moments the guards are less oppressive, for they too receive the blessing, share in the adulation, of the needy as they allow, such nourishing sustenance, to be meted out with such liberality. As we file in lines to our tables the camaraderie is a sight to be heard, a joy to be wept upon, and a stomach to be turned. They chatter together as if workmen on their lunch break, throw the occasional [respectful] glib to the munificent guards, and generally celebrate Christmas early. They drop little treats, those who have currency to burn, into their gruel; some dried noodles here, a salty egg there, and with slurping, gulping, lip-smacking joy devour every morsel of food from their bowls… Finished or not after ten minutes the stony demeanor of the guards returns and snapping at dogs, whose tails have guiltily returned between their legs, send this orderly pack back to their Spartan dens.

More time passes… Sitting on a hard plastic stool… I get up; I want to stretch, to exercise a little – a few push-ups, a few squats, some stretching, and a voice screeches out our room number and my name ordering me to cease and desist. If you have ever read 1984 you can imagine a little… in opposite corners of a room stretching five meters by four are eight men, eight beds take up most of the space, a low, hard stool, tucked under the bed when not in use, at the foot of each, a corner, where a four foot high partition separates the squatting toilet from the beds. In diagonally opposite corners a guarded camera stares, unblinking, down upon the guests, a speaker, again caged and guarded looms above the middle of the farthest wall, and beside the door an intercom to respond if necessary. There is no privacy, there is no space, there is no clock, and a constant, disembodied voice tells you to stop everything but sitting on the low hard stool. Sometimes the screeching voice tells you to not to be so loud; you know they have been listening…

You know it’s ten… or you believe it’s ten, because they come to inspect the room. You stand to attention in front of your bed, calling out your number, because if you didn’t call out your number they wouldn’t know you’re there. They find something wrong with the way you have folded your mattress, with your laziness in hanging your small flannel (the only towel in your possession), over the back of the bed to dry, rather than putting it away in the small plastic box you’re allowed to keep what few items you have with you. There is nothing for them to truly criticize; the toilet has been slewed down from the water in the rubbish bin (the tap only works for small intervals of each day, so you have a large rubbish bin which you fill to the brim at every opportunity – you flush the squatting toilet by pouring water from a washing-up bowl into the gapping cavity and hoping gravity is on your side), the stone floor has been mopped, the sheets are flat, the mattress is folded, the boxes are neatly tucked under the bottom of the bed… but still they find something – they must remind you, remind themselves, of the absolute power they hold over nothing much at all…

They leave… and you wait… sitting on your low, hard stool… it’s remarkable more of us don’t become philosophers; we have enough time on our hands. You know it’s eleven thirty; you believe it’s eleven thirty, because they tell you it’s time to eat, and once again, after lining up, calling out numbers, shuffling in line to the corridor outside the refectory, receiving a bowl of cabbage soup, perhaps with a couple of slivers of tofu, and a bun, you sit and wallow in the camaraderie, or perhaps ‘drown’ might better describe the state. Is it because we have just sat for nearly two hours, with only the rarest snatch of conversation, intimations of what might be humour under different circumstances, suggestions of friendship, on low, hard plastic stools, with nothing to do but ruminate on where we are, to delve into the consequences of whatever action put us here in the first place? The jolly nature of the meal lasts for the exact same duration and we are returned to our luxurious accommodation for another fascinating round of sitting…

Shockingly… well, as shocking as such monotony allows, we are now allowed to lie [silently] on the wooden boards generously described as beds. There are, obviously, no curtains or blinds, the light beams in from the world outside, we don’t have pillows. When the room isn’t full, the unwritten rule suggests the longest serving guest can take the duvet from the empty bed and use it as a pillow. Unfortunately, our room is full so your choice is use your own duvet as a pillow or as a duvet – I went for pillow. For two hours… I presume it was two hours, because on the wall it says this period will last two hours, but once again we had no access to a clock, no way of telling how fast, how slow, time passed; you may think you have a highly tuned internal clock, I know I used to believe that, but when you are waiting, paused… desperate, but contained, straining and screaming for time to rush, to flurry, to scurry and dash, and you have nothing to do and no accurate method with which to measure time, you too, might well, find your internal clock is not nearly so accurate as you used to think.

Depending on the day, depending on the mysterious person in possession of the screeching voice berating misdemeanors or yelling imperatives from the intercom and speaker, they might turn on the small television suspended just below the high ceiling, just above and to the right of the public convenience. On the first day they turned it on in the morning and let it run all day. It was a series about the atrocities committed by the Japanese during their invasion of China, the second day (here I think they changed shifts, because the television wasn’t turned on until the evening, and then they just repeated the same [violent] film over and over until we slept). After that I began to pay less attention, as I couldn’t understand what they were saying, didn’t care for such material, and they were pretty dreadful B-entertainment shows in the first place – although beggars really shouldn’t be choosers. One thing I noticed (apart from these opinions it was interesting to note the film was being streamed illegally from a site avoiding copyright payments), was everything they showed us, everything they showed this group of violent, aggressive, morally free, guests was violent; I probably watched more violence during my brief stay than half a year on the outside.

At two in the afternoon we have to get up, fold our mattress, smooth our sheet, and sit on our stool again… until five-thirty. This time there are no distraction: no one comes to check our beds, just the disembodied, wailing/assailing voice through the speaker telling us we have folded the mattress incorrectly, and when I say incorrectly I don’t mean we’ve been practicing duvet origami, or just rolled the thing up (which seems to be a perfectly suitable way of neatly controlling a duvet), but that the crease isn’t at exactly the right height, or the length of the fold isn’t quite long enough, etc… There is nothing to do for three and a half, I would like to say intolerable, but you tolerate them because there’s nothing else but to tolerate them, hours.

We eat again… I shan’t repeat myself here, for I repeated myself there…

Finally we sit on our low, hard stools until ten o’clock. It’s difficult to say whether they are intentionally a little more lenient, whether the evening shift is more generous in their allowances, whether they have fallen asleep or even perhaps are busy watch television of their own, but we can get away with a little conversation in the evening (if you like that kind of thing), until at ten o’clock we are ordered into our beds, conversation to cease, and to go to sleep (from the moment the outside world begins to darken I was almost overwhelmed by the need for time to dart past – making it pass all the slower).

Night… or is it, because they leave the two 150w bulbs on all night – the room is brighter, more garish, glaring, than day. The bed is like a hard board of wood… Oh, wait… it is a hard board of wood. There are no pillows as the room is full, so duvet or pillow is your option: pillow, because it’s thirty five degrees with no air conditioning. Do you know the sound of seven fat men snoring? There is no sleep; there isn’t even a little dark to pretend you are somewhere else… there is just the passing of time… the waiting for the sky to lighten and the voice to announce the arrive of what I presume is six-thirty…


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