What Stays Under
There is a feeling of weightlessness in lying here, of floating
in the ether.
I often only feel the texture of the wood when I first lie
down. After the lid is shut and locked and I’m pushed back
under, I lose all feeling in my skin, as if the darkness has
dissolved it away. I seep into that darkness, mingle with it
and spread into the space. I ooze into the grain of the wood,
the impenetrably shadowed corners, around the curled head
of the nails, tightening them, keeping it all together. There is
no space to lie on my side, to curl up, or stretch out. There is
no blanket or pillow, no softness or attempt at comfort.
All that exists is this rectangle of darkness and me.
I had been living here for about a year when things started to
It happened in the evening, or what he told me was the
evening. I can never tell because the windows are always
covered in sheets of mould-speckled cardboard. I had been
dozing, eyelashes raking through the darkness when sudden
movement jostled my stomach loose. It was a familiar sensation,
the feeling of being pulled out like a drawer. Then came the
scratching sound of the key in the lock, and then, light.
bare lightbulb hanging overhead. The light gives me my body
back after all those hours of darkness. It reminds me that I
have arms and legs, a torso buckled with ribs, hands paler
than anything I’ve ever seen. His face is always the first thing
visible. I am to remain lying down until he gives the order.
As soon as he utters ‘Up!’, the word resolute and tinged with
a deep red, I stand. Other times I lie in wait for the word, but
it never comes; instead he grabs my arm and drags me up
himself. These times are the worst.
I got the order that day and stood, shaky on forgotten legs.
In stepping out of my box I faltered, keeling forward like I
was falling off a pitching boat. But he caught me, warm hands
holding my arms with no intention to hurt. He righted me in
a business-like fashion, staring down at his feet afterwards as
if he was shy.
The rest of it went as it always did. He had everything
ready as usual, she sat and stared from the corner as usual,
and I obeyed, as usual. But something had changed between
the two of us; a softness had intruded like a bruise in an
After he finishes, I clean myself in the bucket they bring in,
use another bucket for a toilet, and then he brings me food.
Always scraps of what they must have had for dinner. Halfeaten bowls of congealed pasta, nibbled slices of soggy bread,
the fatty chewy bits of meat. I eat without tasting, shoving it
into my mouth with brittle fingers. She always stays and
watches me eat. She’s always watching me, except when I’m
in my box. I hunch over the bowl and try to ignore her eyes
cursing me and my body.
Whenever he hands me my food, I see the same softness
in him I saw when he caught me. I dream about us having
dinner together, without her eyes sticking damp and cloying
to our every move.
When it is time for me to go back, she stands. It is always
her who makes me go back, never with words but with the
force radiating from her sparse, ropey body. She is almost
as skinny as me. I wonder if he limits her to one meal a day
After being out, I have a heightened awareness of the
reality of my box. A mist hangs over it; fleshy and strangely
sweet. The wood is marked with a collection of stains like a
patch test for paint. It is rancid but it is all me. When I look
down at it before stepping in, I can already feel it pulling me
away from the room, the room in which I can move and sit
and eat, the room in which I scream and bleed and beg.
When they climb into bed at night, I hear them above me,
the sagging creak of the bed as their bodies settle into rest.
Sometimes I hear them whispering, and sometimes they
preserve the silence; leave it thick and untouched like icing
on a freshly decorated birthday cake. Sometimes I hear him
use her. It’s gentler than what I know from him, but she still
cries. Her pathetic little whimpers curl into the mattress and
travel down to fall by my face and shrivel into nothingness.
I stopped crying long ago.
Nausea quivers in my gut and wakes me.
The air in my box feels fuzzy, like I’m breathing in warm
pellets of dust. There are a few drill holes carved into the box,
little mouths pulling in the air, force-feeding it to me.
When my stomach contracts and my mouth heaves open,
I bang my fist against the wood. Between retches I shout for
help. He was not happy when I vomited in here before, I do
not want to repeat that. After a few minutes of shouting and
banging I begin to plan where to direct it, where it will be
least likely to get into my hair. There is not enough room for
me to lie on my side, so I begin to slowly inch my body to the
right. As I angle my head to the left movement sends me
reeling, the scratch sounds, and light intrudes.
It is not the warm artificial light I am used to, it is pale and
all-consuming, striking itself into my retinas and leaving me
blind and blinking. I feel a large plastic bowl pressed into my
hands and I angle myself over it; holding my remaining hair
back with one hand I vomit into it, acid burning my throat.
My stomach convulses until I am empty; I wipe my mouth
with the back of my hand and open my eyes.
It’s her. She stands over me, mouth drawn tight and
stretched across her angular face. Her face reminds me of
Halloween witches masks, all pointy chins and small pinprick
Hatred surges within me but then I notice it, why the light
is so different.
The cardboard sheets are off the windows. The light,
bright and dazzling, is sunlight.
From here I can see the tops of trees, the spire of a church,
the tracks of telephone wires. From here I can see the sky.
Incandescent blue, the sun a white hole burnt into it, glaring
down and into the room. I can feel myself expanding. Sitting
up itself an act of unfurling, of moving upwards, towards the
window. Fresh air heaves into me, replacing the pollution.
She clears her throat and I tear my eyes away from the day
to look at her.
‘Are you done?’ she asks, voice quiet, stiff.
I nod, my head flicking back to the window. I didn’t know
it was summer.
She pulls the bowl from my hands as I watch a flock of birds
climb through the sky. The sun’s warmth falls on my face and
my body and I have an urge to hide myself from it. I am the
colour of a raw potato’s flesh, watery pale, limbs like the
twisted sprouts they grow when you leave them in the
cupboard too long. I realise she is watching me, of course she’s
watching me, she is always watching, but this time is different;
her face is less tight, it’s slack and unwound like a broken clock.
Our eyes meet and her mouth quivers open but then closes.
I lie back down. As she shuts the lid I try and get one last
glimpse of the sky, but her face blocks it.
That night I wait for the movement, but it never comes.
All I get is the thrum of darkness. My pulse courses
through it, vibrates in time with the enforced night until my
body feels buoyed up by it all, floating on waves of shadows
and blood. Eventually I hear them get into bed. They do not
talk. They have never gone to bed without letting me out
before; even if he doesn’t want me, I still get food. I think back
to last night, did I offend him somehow? Was I not good
enough? Did I do something wrong?
I am so hungry I cannot sleep. My teeth latch around a
nail, clip its edge in a ferocious repetition until it breaks; I pull
and tear until the crescent sits patiently on my tongue. I
swallow, wonder for a brief second what stomach acid does
to nails, do they break down or just lie there and collect inside
the pocket of my stomach? Will they continue to grow and
one day stab me from the inside out? In the dark I think less
about the external body and more about the internal. It’s like
not being able to see my body strips me of any palpable
presence. It helps with ignoring the pain. I am no longer made
of skin or fat or hair; I only exist as a vast collection of cells
and synapses and organs all quivering and murmuring
together in the darkness. The box is more my body now,
something to contain the throbbing threads of me. I feel that
if it were to open, I would just spread and spread, curling my
veins and my muscles and my entrails out across the world,
a vast forest of the disembodied.
At some point the bed creaks and I hear her leave the
room. I can tell it’s her because of the light footsteps. I assume
she’s going to the toilet, but she never comes back. I lie awake
until the alarm clock clatters alive and his feet thud to the
ground. As he walks by, he kicks my box. He does this every
morning to wake me up, to include me in his day.
The next night, as he leads me over to the straps, my gaze
slips and lands on her.
She is broken. Eyeballs floating in a tub of pulverised
meat. Our gazes meet and she blinks slowly. There are lines
of dried blood crusting across her face. I wonder what she did
to deserve that from him. I must hesitate because he shoves
me harder and then straps me in tighter than usual. From the
moment that leather bites into skin, I know that this will be
one of the worst times.
Afterwards, I will blame her.
The cardboard is off the windows again. There are clouds in
the sky today, crinkled little things. She stands above me
dangling a pair of jogging bottoms and a large white T-shirt.
Her face is less swollen, but it has decayed into a darker stage
of purple; the same shade that covers my body.
‘Put these on’, she says, dropping the clothes in my lap.
Soft cotton loose over a concave stomach. It feels strange
to wear clothes again, like some sort of step backwards; the
past threatening to swallow me.
‘I want you to clean the bathroom,’ she says, voice slow
and even like she is talking to a child. ‘Can you do that?’
I nod my acceptance at her feet, follow her out of the room,
through a small carpeted hall and into the bathroom. I have
never been in here before; all my toilet needs are answered
by a number of buckets. The room is small and grimy, the
mirror speckled with toothpaste. Mould creeps up the walls
and spreads itself out on the ceiling.
‘Do it quickly,’ she mutters. Drops a bucket filled with
bleach, window spray, and sponges at my feet, and then she’s
gone, sloped off down the dark narrow stairs.
My breath stutters, she’s leaving me alone. I stagger
further into the bathroom, look wildly around it, then duck
out and stare down both ends of the hall. I don’t know what
this is, some sort of trap, or the beginning of one of their
games. Fear prickles its way down my body.
I start cleaning, splashing bleach indiscriminately,
scrubbing until my wasted arms ache.
When I reach the mirror, I realise I haven’t seen my face in
over two years. It’s fractured and warped, a faint echo of what
I remember. Scars criss-cross flesh, bones protrude with an
aggressive assertion, nose crooked from when he broke it. I
am a jagged thing. I look mean, feral, wild, but I feel far from
any of those words.
‘Are you done?’
The words cut through the encroaching memories. I look
at her with the afterimage of my reflection lingering behind
my eyes, it hangs above her face and I notice the similarities.
That same watered-down milk complexion, two sets of
hollowed-out eyes staring at each other. She will lie and tell
think about what would happen if I could tell him that it was
my work. Would he punish her for lying? Would I suddenly
be the one sleeping in bed with him at night? And her, in the
box, only taken out to hurt. I would watch her every move as
she watches mine, punish every mistake.
‘You stink,’ she says.
She stares at me for a long time, the smell of bleach
radiates off the walls and mingles with her gaze, burning into
me. I assume she will hit me soon; she hasn’t hurt me in a
‘You should have a shower,’ is all she says.
I don’t move. I don’t know if he wants this, if this would
anger him, if this is her plan to drive us apart, to make him
She makes a noise in the back of her throat, rough and
brittle. ‘Just get the fuck into the shower.’
I strip, clothes clumping off like dead flesh. As I climb into
the shower, she leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
I had forgotten about warm water, the way it works its way
into your muscles. How the warmth feels almost viscous,
enrobing you in the moment, resin-like. A few weeks’ worth
of grime and blood loosens and whirls down the plughole.
When I wash my hair, I am gentle with it so not too many
clumps fall out. Afterwards my skin is bright pink, itchy clean
and singing with light.
When I climb back into my box, I feel guilt settle over me
like a shroud.
He is alone.
The stool she usually sits on is empty, the air radiates
quaveringly around the absence.
As soon as I am standing, he grabs me, fingernails biting
into the loose skin of my arm. He says something about me
being clean. The exact words get washed away by the sound
of my blood thumping in my head. He says something about
making me dirty again.
These are the moments that an absence is required. I usually
think about my box. Its darkness and the pulsing of the
unbodied me within it, swimming in the nothingness like some
prehistoric creature in the depths of the ocean. The ever-present
threat of my spilling out and curling myself around the world.
Afterwards he brings me a plate of sausages and mash,
still warm. I stare at the food and a drop of blood falls from
my nose and into the mash, mixing pink and powdery. When
I look up at him, he smiles a shiny quivering smile.
She pulls me out in the early morning, not long after he
kicked my box.
‘Up’, she says, echoing him. It makes me angry that she is
so entitled to think she can use his words. The jogging
bottoms and top land in my lap. As I dress, she grabs a small
handbag off the bed with a panicked fluidity and opens it;
inside lie a few £20 notes and a crumpled piece of paper.
‘I want you to go to the shop for me,’ she states. ‘There is
£80 in there and the list of what I want.’
It’s a set-up, I know it is. She’s trying to frame me, to turn
him against me, to break the trust we’ve built between us. But
there is no way for me to say no to her. I feel the bag getting
shoved onto my shoulder, trainers forced onto my feet. Her
fingers dig into the exact spot of my arm his did last night, as
if she knows, as if she wants to damage the softness blooming
between us. She drags my body into the hall and down the
stairs. At the front door she crumples a hand-drawn map into
‘The shop is a ten-minute walk away, straight down there,’
she points to the right with a bony finger. ‘And then you turn
left. It is opposite the train station.’
She pushes me out. The day is scalding bright, a million
different colours rush towards me and catch in my eyes. Panic
tingles across my skin and I feel goosebumps form despite
the warmth of the sun. I am standing on a doorstep, a little
path cuts through an immaculate garden leading onto the
pavement. In the exact centre of the garden is a glittering
stone birdbath. The road is filled with identical detached
houses. I struggle to focus on any one thing and fight the urge
to close my eyes and run back.
My body turns and moves me in the direction she pointed.
The streets are quiet but every time a car passes, I think it’s
him. I cower into the shadows of buildings, follow a
meandering choreography of hesitation. The pavement is
busy with cracks and weeds. I pass a house leaking out a
jumble of discordant music, like a bad smell. An old woman
walks by me, the force of her body pushes a wave of air out
and it grates against my skin like an assault.
I turn a corner and see the train station across the road. A
single-story red-bricked building stretching itself in front of
the tracks. A woman wheels a pram out of the door, and I
catch a glimpse of grubby waiting rooms. I do not recognise
the name of the station, have no idea where I am, where in
relation I am to what was once home. There are things within
me that I have learned to turn away from. If I could, I would
cut these things out like a cancer, then I would be complete.
I stare at the station, memories flickering before my eyes.
A car drives by, cuts my view off, and I see him looking out at
me, his face pressed against the window. My stomach clenches
and I shove myself into the shadows. Only when I hit the stone
of the building behind me do I realise it wasn’t him.
I stay like that, palms flat against the stone. It rasps against
my flesh forcing grit in between layers of skin. I long for the
feel of wood. The grocery store looms to my right, the aisles
sterile and too bright, there is too much space and too little
shadow in there. I know if I were to go in, I would get lost;
that my feet would slip on the shine of the floor, that I would
grow smaller and smaller under the glaring blaze.
I suddenly notice how ragged my breathing is, how sweatsoaked my T-shirt is. I am shaking, insides grinding together.
Another car goes by and I flinch. He must not see me. I know
I cannot go into that shop. I know what my body wants. I fix
my eyes on the pavement and follow it, all the cracks leading
back to the neat garden and up to the front door.
Before I can knock, she opens it; stands like a curved beast
in the doorway, blocking my entrance. I can see the anger
sharpening her eyes, I know she wanted him to catch me. She
doesn’t move to let me in, so I push by, my body brushing
against hers. I drop the handbag at her feet and move slowly
up the staircase.
I lay myself down into the box. Closing the lid, I sink into
the darkness. Open my mouth so it curls into me, and within
it lose myself.