The morning light closed behind him as he was ushered into the back, doors slamming as soon as he sat down. The grate to the front let in what little light there was, but did nothing except cast shadows on everyone’s faces, accentuating outlines. Looking around the seats, Charlie counted the figures of three girls and four boys, each of them silent and placated as they waited for the drop off point. He sat back down from his raised position and followed suit, turning his head forward to the outline of another’s, the afro curls perfectly placed in a halo round her face. They each looked down at the cold grey of the floor, seemingly fascinated by the blank slate. The car went over a bump in the road and they swayed back and forth on our bench seat, unwillingly colliding into one another, stuffed like sardines too close for comfort. Charlie managed to hold himself as still as possible by clinging onto the bar by the door, as the fragile girl next to him was practically skeletal, barely managing to stay, shivering, on her seat. Most mental illnesses end up in the retreat, but ones such as the girl next to him don’t receive enough care for their illness and end up dying before their time. People like this shouldn’t be independent, charlie thought to himself, as he thought about all the advertisements for planned eating. The whole world practically discouraged consumption, and Charlie’s nose wrinkled up and turned away from the problem to look at the halo of hair opposite him. Slowly, he drifted off into a soft sleep again, the hushed whispers of a few people and the buzzing of the engine the perfect cocoon for the wash of sleep to fall over him.
After a few more excruciatingly silent hours of fragmented sleep and boredom, they arrived at the retreat. The door charlie had his head against was thrust away from his face as the perfectly dressed guard from earlier yanks it open, Charlie’s fierce awakening a thump on the gravelled ground as the wind was knocked out of him. The guard picked him up to make sure he wasn’t winded, and gestured to the others to exit the vehicle. The creases have come out of his trousers in the summer heat, and the sweat on his forehead glistens and makes his beret wilt. A glimmer of joviality and relief appeared in his eye, but his pout remained on his face and he turned towards the other sponsors.
As they exited the car, they faced away from the retreat to see a straight line of traveled road all the way off into the distance, trees lined up either side dropping plump fruit onto the ground. Wheat fields bordered the area, the agricultural land feeding those in the retreat and the surrounding area, with hedgerows providing them with taste and substance, bordering each field off from the other. The soft plume of the one factory was just about visible over nearer the city, where the rich and powerful were able to obtain manufactured flavours to put in the plain sustenance civilians were able to buy. They walked around slowly, cloudless sky and wheat fields all the same, until the sudden appearance of decorative hedgerow cuts off the field abruptly, and the sponsors from the truck manage to come face to face the building in which they will be staying. A luxurious green lawn with flowers in concentric circles guided them towards the windowed entrance, each building entirely open and the walls barely there as windows shone and reflected off each other slightly in the sun. White chiffon curtains shaded the area, preventing the sun from heating the plenitude of rooms. These curtains twisted in the gentle breeze now, and the Sponsors could look past the entrance building to the identical houses beyond. A pool was in the middle of the area, natural with stones around it, and terraced platforms provided different areas for gardening, meditation, sports and sleeping. A long banquet hall extended beyond the entrance, and opposite this they saw the rooms they would be staying in, entirely glass again but with thin curtains for privacy and shade, this time in a pale blue shade to distinguish from the white of the reception. They saw identical beds in cool natural tones, some earthy and some pale green, with small bathrooms cordoned off by upright wicker boards. A small sliding door allowed you to step out into the garden, which extended for miles in each direction. You could make your way across to the other side, a good five to ten minute walk away, and the tops of teepees and yurts stuck out from what appeared to be a camping ground. The sun and the afternoon haze obscured these from view, so the Sponsors hardly turned to look as they admired the scenery that was right in front of them. Overall, with the cool breeze and the luxury enveloping them, it was unlike anything any of them had seen before, living in the grey city where colours distracted you from the harsh reality of the place. The incentive to come here was a brilliant one, and the control of the population must be deemed worth the expense of the upkeep of this paradise.
They all walk in a small group, spreading out and keeping a comfortable distance between each one of them. The path they trod on moved them into a march, solidly striding two by two up towards the revolving door, the cool breeze fanning them as it span slowly. They walked forward, lined up one by one, and passed through the door to a marbled reception area. Charlie stood in front of the door, staring at the grandiose of the place, and was shoved forward by the person behind him suddenly and with deliberation. Charlie turned around and apologised, finally taking in his companions in the glow of the white chandelier on the ceiling. The guys had instinctively banded together, and yet Charlie was still on the outside of this, standing away from them. There was an old man there, wrinkles sagging down his face and back stooped over slightly, mottled skin on his hands grasping onto a cane in order to stand. His thin lips were permanently in a state of sobriety, face showing no emotion. All the men, actually, looked as if they could be standing anywhere, their faces were so blank and monotonous against the variety of colour they had seen outside. The youngest was barely of age, but was helped by one of the others to carry his oxygen tank, thin plastic tubes wrapping around his ears and into his nostrils. His bones seemed to be poking out of his skin, which was wrapped tightly around his skeletal frame. The man that helped him stood close by, already forming a protective bond with the boy. He was tall, towering over the others with his globed shoulders and muscular arms, hunched from working in agriculture, but fed well due to the sparsely populated outlands, further away from the city. The last man stood to the left of him, so Charlie could barely see him but for a small tuft of afro and raggedy knees, turned in and slightly out from his body. The girls were closer to me, however, the small, thin one from earlier looking like a wraith, pale and fragile who could blow away with a gust of wind. Behind her in the line was a larger girl, with two tufts of hair forming balls on top of her head. She was a curvier figure, baggy clothes trying to mask her shape, but a grim smile made her stand out from the others. Another woman was beside her, older again, but with her age creating a graceful wisdom, curly hair still flowing down her back and head held high. The desk, the floor and the walls were marble, as if the whole shape came about by strategically hollowing a huge block of stone, every line a new curve, perfectly folded to each other. The desk with the receptionist behind was such an ornament, protruding out from the wall and curving round, the large flat surface on top curving down underneath to stand on just a small line of marble. The desk was largely empty, one half blank space with an empty chair behind it. The other however, just held a small computer and a cup of water next to it, the chair filled by a man in all white, casual V-neck shirt and baggy trousers, strangely like pyjama bottoms. The back of his brown hair was changing colour, into yellows and blues, reflecting the lights from the dashboard behind him. Each light had a number under it, and each number was either blue, for outside, or yellow, for inside. The Sponsors all stared at the blinking display for a large amount of time, no one daring to speak lest it echo around the great hall they were standing in. The receptionist cleared his throat and addressed us.
‘The blue light means that the person is in an activity, yellow means that they’ve gone into their rooms for free time.’ He tilted his head slightly to the side to show off his perfectly straight parting, neck pale and clear, almost blending in to his uniform. He wheeled his chair over to the corner and pulled seven keys, one by one, out of a pot, lining them up on the desk in front of him, away from his work. The numbers on them were raised from the surface, black lines marking the perfect silver of the large keys. Curved round the side of the crescent desks were two staircases, one going to the left and one scooping round the back, to the right. He gestured to each one like an air hostess, hand coming out to indicate which passage they was talking about at any given time.
‘On your right,’ he smiled, breaking the silence and waiting for his echo to fade, his voice bouncing around multiple times. Our attentions turned to him instead of the bright lights and grandeur of the reception, and the glittering chandelier, which seemed to sway with even the slight reverberation of the receptionists soft voice. He continued.
‘On the right is the female elevator, and only this gender may use it…on your left, is where the gents go. The gentlemen have rooms further to the reception, but the females are closer to the kitchens, giving you even advantage. Everyone is equal here. Each key only unlocks one room, so absolutely no one can break in. It is absolutely yours for the whole time that you stay here. At 9am and 12pm every day, buses from here go into town, where you can spend your one last day in the city, the time spent as you please. they only ask that you notify reception at least one day before you leave. The buses back are at 4pm and 8pm. If these are missed, the only way you will be allowed back into the building, is on the 4pm bus the next day.’ He smiled at the people once more, pausing for any questions, the echo of the word ‘day’ ringing in their ears, which added to the cacophony of the chandelier on its delicate threads. Silence filled the lobby as they waited for something else to happen, each one of them as cold and still as the marble they were encased in.
‘Okay then…’ he grinned through his teeth, automatically smiling as if habit forced him to. One of the girls stepped forward and spoke up to the receptionist, but at the last moment, faltered in what would have been her welcoming speech.
‘Um, Hey, thank you..’ She sheepishly grinned, and the receptionist nodded politely at her, actually pleased with the response from someone.
’More information is on your desk upstairs, and I’ll just lay the gendered keys out here…all clothes should be in your rooms, and initials are on the keys.’ He placed the keys down on each corresponding side of the desk and sat down again, a slow exhale reaching the ears of the Sponsors. The receptionist was already plugged back in to his computer, the tapping of the keys muffled and silent under the soft pads of his fingertips. Charlie grabbed the key numbered 14, and the light on the dashboard under that number lit up yellow. A small piece of string with his name on it hung under the key, the tiny piece of paper ripping off as he touched it, fragile under the warmth and sweat of his nervous hands. He waited for the other guys to grab the remaining keys, and joined the pack as they walked towards the staircase.
The cold stone turned into plush cream carpet as they reached the bottom of the steps, only a short way down. They could still see the pale glow of light from the reception mingle with the warmth of the daylight oozing into the corridor they stood on. The carpet was plush under their broken and marred city shoes, and the white-washed walls created a similar neutrality to the actual rooms they saw on our way in. The numbers on the doors were exactly the same as their keys, ornate and black and lifted from the white doors. Charlie found number fourteen and twisted the key in the lock, the door popping open automatically and the door began to noiselessly swing into the room. Charlie walked in, feet muffled by the carpet, and took off his shoes by the door, shaking like a leaf and hopping on one leg as he pushed his toes into the heel of the opposite shoe, popping them off without undoing the laces. As he walked further into the room, the door swung closed behind him and heI was introduced to a luxurious pad. He heaved out a heavy sigh at the sight of such luxury. It was perfect. The cool duck egg blue was warmed up by the golden glow of the lamps and candles situated around the room, and the white downy bed was king sized, perfect for sleeping away the hours. Suddenly, fatigue hit him, and he lay down on his bed in silence, barely summoning energy to curl under the covers after such a long day with so much human interaction. He was exhausted even in the middle of the day, as he was used to doing nothing and lying in the dark. He kept his curtains shut so he could block out the light from outside, but the door was open to let in the breeze and the scent of the fresh flowers blooming outside, the grass still dewy from the rain of yesterday. Sighing once more, he turned over and switched off the lights, letting the candles burn down to increase the warmth of the room. He let the sleep wash over him, cocooned in the large duvet and seemingly swallowed by the large bed and excess bedding he was given. He pushed the clothing and information off the side with his feet, the weight of them creating a sense of captivity under the loose freedom of the bed.