(published 12th November 2018)
It took most of the evening, but three tenants from Block 6 finally broke through the barred door into the long-abandoned basement flat.
‘That’s it — we’re through,’ said Jack, the burly building manager. He wiped muck from his face as he lowered the sledgehammer to the carpet. Sweat clung to his chest like a bib.
Dust settled and the door lay in splinters before them. The beige apartment beyond was exposed.
‘How come this was barred up?’ asked Janet, the tenant of apartment 1A, right above the abandoned basement dwelling.
‘The crazy man who lived here before barred himself inside,’ said the third member of their party, Professor Morell, the one who instigated the trespass for reasons unknown.
‘They took him and his dead wife out through the window before they walled the place up.’
‘Pffft, that’s hearsay. The floods saw it condemned and it never resold. The council boarded it up when they reinforced this block’s foundations,’ explained Jack.
‘But it was barred from the inside,’ protested Professor Morell.
‘It just looks like that because they rebuilt large sections round the outside,’ replied Jack. And even though this statement didn’t make much sense, nobody argued.
The leather-skinned building manager rolled his eyes before heading in. He was unshaven, wearing blue overalls as a uniform and a matching blue trucker’s cap that hid a mop of greasy brown hair beneath. In his wake was the smell of old onions.
‘Best be careful in here. It’s been boarded up for more than forty years,’ Jack said over his shoulder.
‘That long?’ exclaimed the professor. ‘That means it was boarded up in 2023.’ He smoothed down his long white beard as he followed Jack inside. Professor Morell wore half-moon spectacles that gave him a shrewd countenance. Of course there was no need for such archaic seeing-eye apparatus, but Professor Morell was a fan of antiquity and wore them as a fashion choice rather than out of necessity. Often he peered over the half-moon spectacles as opposed to looking through them.
The two men cautiously stepped through the door blocking Janet’s view with their shoulders. Janet’s curiosity got the better of her, and she barged between them into the apartment. Her large bosom and bottom swayed beneath a pink velour tracksuit. Jack flicked the front of his cap up to watch her pass; if it hadn’t been for his crush on Janet, none of them would have gotten this far in their expedition.
The idea blossomed weeks earlier when Jack explained to Professor Morell, for the umpteenth time, that one of his job tenets was to never ever allow anyone into the empty basement flat. Unfortunately, the neighbour across the hall, Janet Peche, overheard their squabble. With a flutter of her mascara-blue eyelashes, Jack did a u-turn on company policy.
The battered-in door was testimony for it being too late for regrets or second thoughts. Janet was in the middle of the little apartment’s living room. Her fluffy pink slippers left a trail of little footprints in the dust.
‘It’s like a museum,’ she said and her face was red from excitement, or too much rouge. The layout of the apartment was identical to hers, but the decor was sorely outdated.
‘Turn the light on,’ Janet said with a clap.
‘I believe this type of apartment would have had a switch. The lights probably aren’t voice activated. It looks too outdated to be computerised,’ said Professor Morell. He felt along the wall for such a device. His searching fingers hit upon a plastic protuberance and he pressed it. The light bulb flickered on with reluctance. The room was yolk yellow.
Janet squealed with delight. ‘I remember my grandmother telling me about apartments like this,’ she said. Her makeup lined the creases of her round face as she thought. ‘How could people live like this? They were like… like cavemen!’
‘I myself grew up in an apartment such as this — on the other side of London. I never saw a plasma bulb with voice recognition until I was in my teens,’ said the professor. ‘Before that it was all huge electric light bulbs, the size of a hen’s egg rather than a pill.’ He guffawed, tears of nostalgia standing in his narrow eyes.
‘Imagine that.’ Janet was lost in her own thoughts. She snapped out of her reverie, ‘Look at this, there’s a sofa and a glass coffee table, which needs a clean. And there’s a window on that wall.’ She frowned. ‘In my apartment there’s no window there—’
‘It’s not a window,’ said the professor as he shuffled in behind her to peer at the 42 inch screen. ‘Hmmm.’ He smoothed down his beard, which was glossy from the habit. ‘It’s a smart mirror — isn’t it?’ he asked.
Jack butted in between the pair. ‘It’s a television,’ he blurted. He flopped onto the couch in a plume of dust, and searched between the cushions for the device that switched it on. ‘One of my acquaintances has one in his loft—’
Janet cut him off, ‘Television is banned. The government says it rots the brain — keeping millions of people hypnotised and fat,’ she snatched her gaze away from the offending screen. She covered her eyes with hands tipped by long pink nails.
‘That might be what the government said, but there’s still thousands of them kicking about in lofts and basements around the city in neo-speakeasies,’ the building manager replied.
‘Of course.’ The professor clapped his hands together. ‘My grandmother owned one of these too, when I was a boy.’ He strolled over to the wall-mounted set and felt around for some buttons.
‘Hey, be careful!’ Janet still shielded her face. ‘I don’t want to get brain rot!’
‘Your brain won’t literally rot,’ said the professor with a taught smile, pink lips protruding wetly from his white facial hair. ‘The Johnson government said that to scare people and make television easier to ban in favour of the far more controllable internet. It was the scaremongering victim of that decade. Anyway, I doubt there’s anything being broadcast for this old thing to actually work.’
‘Come here, love. Sit beside me,’ said Jack. He took the opportunity to get close to Janet. ‘There’s plenty being broadcast,’ he said in a confidential tone as Janet perched beside him. ‘The net reports the government’s anti-television terrorist department closes illegal broadcasters down every week, but when they close one another 6 spring up. Plus, the broadcasters don’t even need to make programmes anymore, they can show digitised re-runs of the many programmes or films already in existence. Besides, the Russian Federation and China never banned it.’
‘Films?’ Janet’s face creased.
She was almost in Jack’s lap, and he smiled while readjusting himself. ‘Yeah films — like really long adverts.’
The television lit up without warning, bathing the trio in a beam of flickering silver light. Janet hid her face behind Jack’s musky armpit, while the professor leapt away with surprise. Jack was relaxed. He planted his heavy boots on the glass coffee table, waiting for the forbidden magic to begin. If Janet saw what television could offer, Jack was sure he could win her heart.
A man’s voice boomed from the speakers and the professor, who hadn’t seen a television in four decades, fumbled for the volume control. It was quietened and the professor backed away, transfixed by its glow. He perched on the couch’s armrest. Janet peeked out from her ripe hiding place, and the flat screen infatuated the trio.
A masked man spoke inside the frame. He introduced the next programme and apparently didn’t want to be identified for his illicit activities. A layer of dust made the image sepia.
‘We have a special treat for all our underground viewers — my associates have managed to procure what used to be called a soap opera,’ said the presenter.
Janet gasped, even though she didn’t know what a soap-opera was.
‘Sit close love, ol’ Jack will protect you,’ Jack whispered through her immaculate brunette curls. He put a fat hand around her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, it’s just television,’ he said like a peddler of the illusion.
As the drum beats of EastEnders rolled in and an aerial view of the Thames appeared in the screen, the trio gawped. Hypnotised. Janet’s heart thumped double-quick.
A week later the forbidden basement apartment was transformed into a neospeakeasy behind a secret door. The whole block was there awaiting the start of the famed EastEnders. Most decent people would never head into the inner city to neo-speakeasies, but they would certainly go to one that opened in the safety of their own block. The trio were at the centre of the huddle, in the middle of the couch. Bags of crisps, popcorn and sweets in bowls were passed around. The government carpet-banned many of these confections in the 2050s, but there existed a thriving black market in sugary treats as well as nicotine and alcohol.
‘I told you it wouldn’t rot your brain,’ the professor whispered to Janet beside him. ‘Uh-huh,’ she nodded without conviction, never taking her glassy gaze from the screen. Jack sat on her other side, his arm draped over her shoulder.
A teenager lit a joint at the back of the apartment, clearly not for medicinal purposes, unless it was a new kind of acne treatment. Nobody cared. The screen had them all enamoured. The drumbeats thumped, the viewers collectively held their breaths and the
aerial view of the Thames popped into view.
Jack’s meaty arms ensconced Janet, who scoffed sweet stale popcorn. Their two bottoms, which had grown somewhat since the expedition, made a deep groove in the centre of the sofa. Jack bided his time. He once repulsed Janet, unless she needed something mending in her flat, but now he was the sole provider for her addiction, and he knew it. He wanted to take their relationship further. When the cliffhanger was set and the final drumbeats sounded, he seized the moment. ‘Perhaps we could go on a date next week and you could stay over at mine?’ he suggested.
‘Uh-huh,’ Janet said, not really listening.
‘I got a real nice bit of lingerie for you, which you could wear.’ He pushed further. ‘Do that and I’ll introduce you to films.’
‘Sure,’ she answered. Her eyes never left the television screen as the masked man presented another programme. She didn’t know or care that the disgusting building manager was saying. She just wanted to watch television, preferably in peace.
Hearing all this, the professor chuckled to himself. ‘Rot your brain, indeed.’ Inside his head, he planned the first paragraph of his paper on ethnography as he listened to the pillow talk of the two youngsters beside him.
A comedy called Dad’s Army started. Pairs of eyes glittered all over the dimly lit room as the tenants of Block 6 gawped at the screen.
The sound of sirens echoed in the distance.
Darcy Lin Wood resides in Oxfordshire, but has Russian-British blood. With a degree in journalism, Darcy started writing fiction full-time six years ago and has since had work published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Bunbury Magazine, The Dawntreader and Every Day Fiction. You can find Darcy lurking around Wattpad, procrastinating on Twitter @DarcyLinWood or on Facebook at LeftFieldDarcy.