Already Frank was finding it difficult to remember his old life clearly, though he couldn’t have been in the mirrored room for more than a couple of weeks. Even without windows, without seeing the cycle of night and day, he had still hung on to some rough notion of time. They’d taken him from his home between ten and twenty sleeps ago. It was possible to surmise the time of day by reference to his meals and his bowel movements. Both were strictly regular. He was determined to stay positive, to keep his mind in some kind of order, even if everything was set against him doing so.
On the first day they took his clothes, and he’d gone naked ever since. That had taken some getting used to. The room in which they had imprisoned him looked a little like a ballet studio, with every wall covered in mirrored panels from floor to ceiling. The door was one such panel, indistinguishable from the others until it was opened from the outside. There was no furniture at all. The floor was bare white concrete, and at first Frank did his best to avoid sitting on it, just as he had tried to avoid the sight of his ubiquitous reflection. Both had made him uncomfortably conscious of his soft white torso and drooping testicles, but by now he’d grown used to living in his own skin. It no longer bothered him to sit on the cold floor. He’d become immune to it, just as he’d become almost blind to his reflection, which was little more than a shadow to him now.
The guards brought him a meal once a day and cleaned up his faeces from the corner of the room. They were two nondescript men of identical height and build, wearing identical dark boiler suits and carrying identical truncheons. Frank had never once heard them speak, not even to each other. He’d tried to communicate with them many times, but they never made any sign that they heard or understood. On his third or fourth day in the mirrored room, maddened at having been ignored for so long, Frank had attacked them with his fists. They beat him to the ground with their truncheons, just enough to subdue him, then left.
So the guards were not needlessly cruel, it seemed. There were even evidences of a sort of kindness. Lately they had taken to bringing Frank what might be termed gifts. There was no discernible logic in their offerings, no discernible pattern. So far there had been a squeaking rubber ball, a stainless steel fork, a broken fishing reel, a stack of women’s magazines, a Rubik’s cube, an empty watering can and a filthy plastic doll that was missing both arms and most of its hair. Frank was grateful for the fork and the magazines. He quickly became bored with the Rubik’s cube after he failed to make any progress with it. He showed no interest in the other items, and these discreetly disappeared while he was asleep.
Then one day they brought Frank their most extravagant offering yet. It was a woman.
She was about thirty, with brownish hair that somehow managed to look dry and greasy at the same time. From the way she strained to look at him, Frank guessed that the guards had confiscated her glasses along with her clothes.
‘I’m Frank.’ His voice was weak after going unused for so long. He cleared his throat. ‘Hello.’
She peered at him blankly. The guards nudged her towards him with their truncheons and then backed out of the room. The door closed and became indistinguishable from the other mirrored panels.
‘Hello,’ he repeated. ‘My name’s Frank. What’s your name?’
She peered back at him.
‘Vaffour?’ she said, or at least that is what it sounded like to him. He saw that she had very bad teeth.
She repeated herself three or four times before Frank realised she was speaking in a language he didn’t recognise.
‘Are you hungry?’ he said, and pointed to the meal the guards had left on the floor. Today it was a bowl of miniature sausage rolls. Yesterday it had been several bars of sickly white chocolate.
She shook her head. ‘Yai fustor eaga.’
Frank laid the palm of his hand against his chest. ‘Frank,’ he said.
‘Vaffour?’ she repeated, shaking her head.
Fine, he thought, I’ll call her Vaffour.
He did his best to make her comfortable in that sparse room, and tried to show through body language and tone of voice that he meant her no harm. She mostly sat in the corner and cried, sometimes jabbering away in her own language, sometimes only repeating that one word over and over again.
Frank reminded himself that this was her first day. He bore it patiently when she woke him with her sobbing in what he guessed must be the night time.
The next morning the guards came in, but this time they brought no food. Between them they picked up Vaffour by her arms and dragged her over to where Frank lay, dazed from lack of sleep. They threw her down on the concrete next to him, and she began to wail.
‘What are you doing?’ Frank said to them. ‘Look here, there’s no need for that kind of—’
One of the guards raised his truncheon and jabbed it in the air towards Frank. Then he pointed it at Vaffour.
‘What do you want?’ said Frank. ‘Why don’t you just bloody speak to me?’
The guard pointed his truncheon again at Vaffour, more insistently. He was pointing at her crotch.
‘Nye!’ she wailed, and Frank understood.
‘You can forget it.’ He felt his face grow hot. ‘Out of the question.’
The guards scowled at him in silence, and when he showed no sign of moving they eventually left the cell. Vaffour crawled back to her corner and lay there sobbing. The guards didn’t return that day, and no meal came.
The next day was the same, only more so. The guards came in and dragged Vaffour over to where Frank lay. This time they actually threw her onto him. She smelt strongly of urine and sweat, something he had already noticed from a distance, and now he almost retched at having her up this close. She let out a piercing wail, spraying spittle and bad breath into his face.
‘I told you no!’ said Frank, throwing Vaffour off more violently than he meant to. ‘What are you playing at? Do you mean to starve us until we…’ He couldn’t bring himself to say it. He felt his face grow hot again, and before he knew what he was doing he took a swing at the guard nearest to him. He missed, and the other guard struck him across the backs of his legs with his truncheon. Frank crumpled to the floor, scraping his hands and knees bloody on the concrete floor, and the guards left. He and Vaffour went without food once again.
The next morning, however, one of the guards brought in a tray laden with three steaming bowls of porridge. The other brought in a new companion to share their mirrored cell. This was a burly, pug-faced man about ten years younger than Frank.
‘Y’alright,’ said the newcomer, unabashed in his nakedness as they took off his handcuffs. ‘Name’s Danny.’
‘Frank,’ said Frank. He gestured towards Vaffour, who was asleep. ‘This is… actually, I don’t know her name. I think she’s foreign.’
The guards left the room, and the door disappeared.
Danny looked around the room, and then at Frank again. ‘Been here long, have you?’
‘A few weeks, maybe.’
‘What about her?’
‘A couple of days.’ Frank bent to pick up a bowl of porridge from the tray and handed it to Danny, then took one for himself. He had no spoon, so he put the bowl to his lips and tipped the hot sticky mess into his mouth. It tasted wonderful. He wiped his mouth on his forearm and looked at Danny. ‘So when did they get you?’
‘Dunno,’ said Danny. ‘Last night, I suppose.’ He tipped the porridge into his mouth, keeping his eye on Frank. When the bowl was empty he nodded to where Vaffour lay sleeping. ‘Your friend over there… are you and her…?’
Frank flushed again. ‘No.’
‘No. Foreign, eh?’
‘Look,’ said Frank. ‘I think we need to talk about what we’re doing here. I mean… I’ve been locked up in here for all this time and I still don’t know why. I can’t get those guards to say a bloody word about it. Did they take you from your home?’
Danny shrugged. ‘Suppose. Woke up this morning in the back of a van with no clothes on, in handcuffs. Thought I was going to get tortured or something. Then they opened up the van and put a bag over my head, and… well, here I am.’ He nodded distantly, and his eyes drifted over to where Vaffour lay.
‘And you’ve got no idea why they took you?’ said Frank, taking a seat on the floor. The porridge was very filling after two days without food, and it was making him feel sleepy.
‘Not a clue, mate.’
‘You don’t seem very curious.’
Danny smiled unpleasantly. ‘What’s the point? Has being curious done you any good in here?’
Frank shook his head, eyelids drooping, and leaned back on one elbow.
‘I suppose not. Maybe they’re punishing us for something. Maybe it’s all just one big practical joke…’ He yawned. ‘Only I don’t see anyone laughing…’
Danny laughed, as if to spite him, and Frank dozed uncomfortably where he lay. Some time later he was awoken by the screaming.
At first he thought it was his wife, long dead though she was, but then he saw that it was Vaffour. She lay face down on the floor, screaming and sobbing, pinned down by Danny’s hairy forearms.
‘Nye!’ she cried, struggling against Danny’s strength. His face was red with exertion, and he was grinning.
‘There, there,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘That’s a good girl. Won’t be long now.’
‘Get off her!’ Frank sprang to his feet. The smile disappeared from Danny’s face as he stood and faced Frank, squaring his shoulders. Vaffour scurried away from them on all fours, weeping. Then Danny seized Frank by the throat with both hands.
Within seconds the guards were in the room, beating Danny across the head and shoulders with their truncheons. The grip on Frank’s throat loosened. Frank took a few stray blows, but he didn’t care, such was his relief to feel the cool air flowing back into his lungs. Tears of gratitude spilled down his cheeks. As soon as Danny was subdued, the guards dragged Frank towards the door by his arms. His toes trailed and chafed on the concrete. A bag went over his head, and for the first time in weeks he knew darkness. He felt his strength returning.
When he found his feet and walked, they stopped dragging him and allowed him to go at his own pace. They stopped at the rear of some unseen vehicle whose engine was running, and he heard them open the doors. The handcuffs curled cold around his wrists and clicked shut. The guards took him by the arms again, and he didn’t resist when they shoved him into the back of the van. With Vaffour’s screams beginning again in the distance as the doors slammed shut, Frank settled onto the dirty floor of the van and soon drifted into a gentle sleep.