“Can you breathe?”
“Yes, yes. I’m sure.”
Ripping duct tape seared the air above my head; scissors snipped.
“I’m taking the tape all the way round.”
“Can you still breathe?”
I stifled a cry as my chin knocked into my knees. “Ouch, why are you shoving me?”
“I’m checking you don’t rattle.”
“Be gentle, then.”
“The postman might not be gentle.”
“Stop it, you’re scaring me.”
“Sorry. Hey, Molly?”
“We forgot to say goodbye.”
“The formal farewell. We forgot it.”
“Well, let’s do it now before I… hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m hugging the box.”
“Stop it, Jane. You’ll make me cry and then someone will hear me sniff.”
“I’m sorry. Good bye… for now.”
“Wait, what’s that noise?”
“Jane, did you just kiss the box.”
“Jane Robinson, you’re mad.”
“I’m making the air hole now.”
“Are you using the scissors?”
“No, a knife.”
“Where did you get that?”
“The canteen. Ok, I’m coming through.”
“Mind my face.”
“You said left; I see a chink of light on the right. Ooh, I see your chin.”
“Got pins and needles yet?”
“Shit, someone’s coming.”
I had practiced a silent body. Hours spent sucking in abdominal muscles had taught me how to quell a gurgling stomach. Pinching my nostrils had revealed all the subtleties of sneeze control and I was now an expert in silent breathing, honing the perfect balance of nostril width and lung expansion until I might as well be dead. The cough was the killer. Evolved to perfection over untold millennia, this primal reflex defied all my attempts at control, yielding only to a soggy flannel, sucked through silent lips.
“Molly, they’ve gone. Can you still breathe?”
“Do you see my finger?”
“It’s in the hole.”
“Yes, yes, I see it.”
“Right, you’re ready. So… are you going first or second class?”
“That’s not funny.”
“They’ll be coming to collect you any minute. Are you prepared for this?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’ll stop talking then. You’re on your own.”
“Thanks for this, Jane.”
I listened. What else was there to do? Movement meant sound and sound meant discovery: the cutting of tape, the tearing of paper, the breaking of a plan. Suppressing an urge to scratch my nose, I launched into my much-practiced state of suspended animation and absorbed the words crossing the space above me.
“This one ready?”
“Yes. Watch out, it’s heavy.”
“Robinson, you can go now.”
“I said… goodbye.”
“Robinson, stop fucking around and get back to your wing.”
“Yes, sir. I’m going.”
“OK, John. Let’s shift it onto the trolley.”
“Bugger…my back. What the hell’s in here?”
“Dunno. Check the label.”
Being turned upside down was not part of the plan. Blood pooled into the top of my head; knees crushed my ears. But before my senses had time to adapt I was flipped back again, aware of a new feeling, movement.
I was on my way.
“She’s a sly one, that Jane Robinson,” said a voice.
“That woman just now. Got ten years for diddling old ladies out of their savings. Her and that Molly Graham, both claimed they were innocent. Clever bitches like that are never innocent.”
“So long as she didn’t get her thieving hands on my savings.”
“Under the mattress are they?”
“Shut your face. Wait, what about the parcel scan?”
“Sod the scan. The game starts in five minutes. Just leave it down by the counter and I can start taking some of that little nest egg off you.”
Counters can be quiet places. My ears stretched out for noise, but there was none. Minutes passed. I stroked the face of my watch. I picked a spot. Then footsteps rushed by, the unmistakable sound of female feet pressed into prison shoes. A second pair arrived, shuffling, too lazy to separate sole from ground and I sat like a statue, waiting for more. But no more came. My senses began searching, fine-tuning, sifting through sounds until the murmur of voices from a far away room satisfied my needs. But the words rising up from a distant throng soon fell and merged into a monotone drone, all meaning lost. Then fresh voices spoke, close by.
“This load can go.”
“I’ll get the trolley.”
Cold air swept into my peephole as I left the building, dragging in with it a miscellany of new sounds: gravel sticking to turning wheels, trousers rubbing between thighs, a mechanical humming from far off. I could smell the scent of the outside. I mouthed the glorious word. ‘Outside.’ Then I took long slow breaths, trying to silence my poor racing heart. Finally, I tipped my head against the side of the box and cried.
The box shook as we took an abrupt right turn, then the roar of the delivery platform poured through the hole. My stomach lurched and moments later I knew I was in the back of the lorry. I drew in a silent breath as a small item was placed on top of my box and could not help but fantasize. Was it a love letter baked into a fruit cake, or a doll’s house built from matches, or even a confession encrypted into a poem?
“OK, Ken, that’s a full load.”
“See you tomorrow, Jim.”
Doors were slammed, seats adjusted and the engine turned on. My highly trained ears sifted right through the random melee of noise, sleuthing through the layers, isolating the most important sound, the sound of human speech.
“Slow down, Simon. For god’s sake.”
“But Ken, I need to get back to the depot before nine.”
“I’ve got to be somewhere.”
“Watch that bike! Christ, Simon. Slow down. You’ll damage the load.”
“Shit. Another red light. It’s a bloody conspiracy.”
“Simon. Calm down, or I’m driving.”
“Sorry, Ken. I’ve met this woman and she’s driving my crazy.”
“Your wife’s not driving you crazy any more then?”
“Simon, the lights!”
I had forgotten to bring a band-aid, but the trickle of blood is silent. So, dabbing my knee with a blanket, I waited. The back doors clicked open, then hands were near me, tidying hands. I sensed the small parcel being removed from my top and felt strangely bereft as the sound of movement receded. Then later, much later, after unwillingly learning all the details of the driver’s illicit life, the laddered stockings, the wine smudged lips, the lorry slowed down and the engine cut out.
“Simon, wait. I need you to help me unload.”
“Sorry, Ken. I’ve got to go.”
You are never more than fifteen feet from a rat in London. I heard it said once. The scratching started up the moment the footsteps faded out. I rubbed down goose pimples as I listened to the myriad of rodent sounds, behind me, in front of me, running across my box, nibbling and spitting at the wrapping paper, loosening corners of duct tape. Forcing images of yellow teeth and tails from my mind I concentrated on sleep. I had practiced that. Not a single guard had noticed the nights I spent sleeping upright, my shoulders propped by a pillow. Now my pulse slowed and my breathing slipped into a regular rhythm as my mind detached from reality.
An unknown length of time later, a pencil of light and voices woke me.
“Five hundred quid?”
“More if you’re clever.”
“I want in.”
“You can’t just ‘want in’, Simon, you’ve got to do some work.”
“Anything, Ken, I’ll do anything.”
“It’s a question of weight. See that parcel there.”
“What, that big one?”
“Yes. What does it weigh?”
“Dunno, fifty pounds?”
“That’s probably close, but what does it really weigh?”
“I don’t get it.”
“It really weighs a hundred pounds. Costs twice as much to send. Get it yet?”
“So start weighing.”
My legs had lost all feeling as I was heaved onto the scales, unsure if the doubling of my weight would help or hinder my plan. But my goal was in sight, I felt sure of that as I went into silent mode. It might only be a matter of hours before I reached home and could slide my fingers beneath my husband’s shirt and taste the inside of his mouth.
“A hundred and twenty pounds,” came a triumphant voice.
“Stick the label on then.”
“Yes, straight on.”
The thump of packages being re-arranged grew louder and as the sounds came closer I knew I was approaching the moment, the unknown element in my carefully constructed plan. Claustrophobia.
Panic welling up inside a chest is silent. I discovered that as a heavy item was thumped down on top of me. But the scream is not. The scream is like a bubble in a bottle; once formed it cannot go back. I rammed my knuckles into my mouth and oozed a compressed sound.
“Simon. Did you fart?”
“No. Shut up.”
“Hurry up, I want the lorry empty by lunch.”
“Come on, shift yourself.”
A full bladder replaced my husband’s face at the front of my mind as we drove away from the sorting office, but no liquid during the previous forty-eight hours persuaded me that the painful signals forcing their way up from my abdomen were bogus. Even so, it was difficult to concentrate on anything but thoughts of damp patches seeping through brown paper.
“Warwick Road coming up.”
“That’s the biggy, isn’t it Ken?”
“Yep. Give us a hand.”
Last time I went up my garden path I had used feet. But even folded up like a spider in a matchbox I was aware of the squeak of my garden gate, the rustle of the apple tree ten feet from the house and the familiar thump of the brass knocker. It was too much. My body functions broke ranks, launching into a cacophony of longing; my heart thudding like a timpani, blood roaring in my ears.
“Mrs. Robinson?” said the deliveryman.
“No, she’s doesn’t live here any more,” replied an unfamiliar female voice.
“Actually, we’re looking for Mr. Robinson. Is he at home? I need him to sign for this parcel.”
“Wait, he’s just here.” A shout squeezed into my air hole. “Sam, you need to sign something.”
“My god, what the hell is that?”
“A delivery from Wormwood Scrubs. You need to sign.”
“I hope you’re not expecting me to pay anything on this?”
“No, sir, you just need to sign the paper.”
“Perfect. Thank you. Good day to you.”
Something scratched across the top of the box.
“What the hell is she playing at? I told her I don’t want any more of those filthy books.”
“She’s trying to keep possession of you. Can’t you see that?”
“Well, she’s wasting her time, isn’t she?”
“Sam, stop it. Someone will see.”
“Let’s go back inside then.”
“Wait, what are you going to do with it.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Chuck it out.”
“We’ll have to call the council for a special rubbish collection.”
“What a pain. Hey, I know…”
“What? Sam, where are you going?”
“Hey. Sir. Mr. Postman. Wait. Come back.”
“Sam, what are going to do?”
“Send it back, of course.”
‘January 2007… A German prisoner sent to a high security prison for fraud, managed to set himself free by hiding in a cardboard box and posting himself to freedom.’
About the Author
Rosie Chard is a British writer/landscape architect living in Winnipeg, Canada. She is seeking a publisher for her first novel, The Seal Intestine Raincoat, and currently working on her second novel.