To forget can be a cruel mercy. I know that now. This morning as I was shaving I realised that I couldn’t picture Claire’s face. I froze, helpless to do anything but stare into my panicked eyes in the mirror as I tried and failed to picture her smile. The smile that never failed to draw me out of myself and into the light. I heard the clink of my razor hitting the sink as I failed to recall her voice, her kiss, her embrace. I came here, to Golden Door, because I thought that this is what I wanted. To forget. But all I really wanted was the distance, and the perspective that it brings, so that I could think of her without feeling like all those old wounds were tearing open again. I want to remember.
After a few minutes of dread panic spent slumped down on the toilet, half naked with shaving cream dripping from my chin, she came back to me. I can still just about picture her, though she’s become a hazy, indistinct figure. As if she’s being slowly replaced by shadow. As I sat there trying to get my mind’s eye to focus on her I realised that that I couldn’t remember how it all ended. I’ve spent so long reliving that day, over and over, trying everything I could think of to blank it from my mind. But in that moment, having had it torn from me, all I wanted to do was to experience every miserable instant again. That memory also came back after a few horrified moments, and once I’d raised it from the depths of my mind I wanted to write down everything about her that remained in my memory before I lost it all for good. Even that wretched day when it all came apart at the seams.
But I couldn’t bear to relive it. I don’t have it in me.
It’s not just Claire that’s fading. All my memories have started to erode at the edges. How or why this is happening I have no idea. The doctors at Golden Door’s medical practice tell me I’m in perfect health. They tell me it must be stress related. But I don’t believe that. I’m afraid something else is causing this. Something to do with this place itself. I can’t even begin to articulate what that might be. All I can do now is start this record.
This will be my second attempt to keep a diary in the past year. The first didn’t last long; my old therapist suggested it would be useful for me keep a diary as a sort of breadcrumb trail, the idea being that reading it back would show me how often I mentally trudge over the same ground, torturing myself. It felt like a complete waste of time to me though, I was all too aware of what I was doing to myself. Now I find myself needing to lay a breadcrumb trail for another reason – to find my way back to myself should my memories continue to dissolve. If this diary goes the way of my last one then I hope that it’s once again because I lose interest and not because I’ve forgotten that it exists.
I need to keep it close in case that happens. I need to be able to read this and at least be able to retrace my steps back to where it all began. The day I came to this place.
The job listing for Golden Door made it sound like exactly what I needed after Claire and I broke up:
Sprawling across over one million square feet and housing over a thousand Golden Door employees, as well as the staff running the Village’s many amenities – including the market, bar, cinema, leisure centre, shopping arcade and golf club – Golden Door Commercial Village was built from the ground up to sustain the employees of Golden Door Solutions, a pioneering force within the service industry. We’re the world’s leading administrative service provider, contracted by some of the largest and most prestigious global corporations to outsource the entirety of their day to day administrative work. To our clients we offer a unique opportunity – to take care of the purely mechanical elements of their day to day operations – including payroll, finance and business support – freeing them up to do the serious work. To our employees we also offer something unique – through Golden Door you will work for some of the world’s most illustrious corporations on a varied and exciting workload for an extremely competitive salary, as well as generously subsidised housing within our welcoming community.
Even without the promise of solitude and a fresh start the job would have been a tempting proposition. My career, such as it is, has been a patchwork of dull office jobs which haven’t given me much in the way of job satisfaction. None of them paid all that well either. But they did at least give me enough experience to comfortably match Golden Door’s person specification. As I saw it a more focused period of employment might set me off on a path to something more meaningful. And after many months of not knowing what to with myself after Claire left it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start afresh. A clean slate and so forth. And so, a couple of phone interviews and a brief online test later, I was on my way.
Though the memory is starting to darken I can still picture my arrival on that sparsely populated bus. If I listen hard I can still hear the scraping of my broken suitcase wheel as I dragged my belongings across the road. Only one other traveller alighted here; a woman named Beth. She had packed what appeared to be every item of clothing she’d ever owned (or so it seemed compared to my own thrown together belongings) so I helped her carry her bags to the living complex. I remember she was dressed like she was on her way to a music festival, wearing a tiny leather jacket and vest top, with a slim band of tanned skin between her long skirt and tall boots. “Textbook broadsheet hippy,” I remember thinking before mentally chiding myself for being judgemental. That kind of thinking would never make me any friends here.
As we walked her cropped muddy blonde hair kept dropping from behind her ears in front of her eyes whenever she turned her head to me. I remember that because it obviously annoyed her – the pushing back of the errant bit of hair was a tic I’d see again and again over the coming weeks. But she was weighed down with bags and unable to get at it and kept waving her head, attempting to fling it over her ear. She bristled with a nervous confidence as we took our first stroll through The Golden Door Commercial Village.
“I checked it out on the website, though it’s so far away from civilisation Google haven’t got around to getting it on street view,” she told me.
“The website is very shiny and all but it doesn’t actually tell you anything, does it?”
“Well, I guess if they told you that it looks like someone started building a motorway service station and just forgot to stop no one would ever apply for a job, would they?”
She had a point: the village is so nondescript it defies language. Adjectives slide off the gleaming glass fascia of the office and the apartment block. Similes and metaphors seep into what the website tells me (in one of it’s many completely useless factoids) is special flood-proof concrete. The shops look like they’ve been cut and pasted from any given British high street. The only part of it that feels real is the part that isn’t built yet. We walked past a construction site, a sprawling vista of reddish dirt that looked like a dead planet, littered with heavy machinery that roared in the daytime and lat night lay strewn like a still from a post-apocalyptic movie. The barriers were a good ten feet high and topped with barbed wire, as if they feared someone might get drunk and take a joyride in a bulldozer. In the months to come we wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of the workmen. In fact we wouldn’t have any contact at all with any non-residents of the village. Goods for the shops and the bar are dropped off in an underground delivery area that is off limits to everyone but the security team. We were told it was part of their confidentiality agreements with the various corporations – confidentiality is an unbreakable rule within Golden Door. Without it they wouldn’t have any clients so they couldn’t risk anyone smuggling data out.
Beth talked a lot on that walk. She was like an overfilled pot, the heat of fear and excitement causing her to boil over. She’s a photographer and a movie buff. She misses her cat but not the city. She liked the look of the pizza place but the shopping centre looked so anodyne she wanted to throw fistfuls of mud at its endless off-white surfaces. What she didn’t tell me was why she wanted to come here in the first place. I could see in her tired eyes that she was here to get away from something. It’s a look I’d see again and again in the eyes of our colleagues and fellow residents. Everyone here seems to have something they wish to forget. Though how many, like me, are now fighting to remember I can only guess.
I was greeted on my first day at work by Mr Simmonds, the managing director of Golden Door. I wouldn’t have thought I’d warrant such a high level welcome but I’m told he pays each new arrival special attention. Even though I’ve seen him dozens of times since I find it hard to picture Simmonds in my head. I just think of a blue pinstripe suit and a face as unremarkable as the village itself. What I do remember is that he is a man not afraid of eye contact. During our first chat he held my gaze for periods so long I started to question whether he had evolved beyond the need to blink. And when he laughs, usually at his own jokes, he insists on placing his hand on some part of your person, something I find quite unsettling.
His main office is on the 8th floor but he keeps spends a lot of time in an office down on my floor – the 2nd. He took me in there for an introductory meeting and showered me in empty words about learning opportunities, future-proof strategies, blue skies to think in and boxes to think outside of. “This team is like a family,” he said in a voice that didn’t appear to have ever had even a passing relationship with irony. “My door is always open.” We spoke for 15 or 20 minutes and in that time I don’t think he said anything at all. He’s well liked by the staff but there’s something about him I find unnerving. From the moment his watchful eyes fell on me I felt like a specimen in a Petri dish.
Once he’d gone I soon discovered that the downside to working on outsourced contracts was the confidentiality they protect so fiercely. Everything that we work with is encrypted. The genius of Golden Door is that they have broken the inner workings of corporations down into small, generic tasks that can be completed by the worker without them ever needing to know what it is they are working on. The raw data is different for each contract but the process is the same. My job is to work with this data, producing reports and making projections and calculations without ever knowing what they are or what they represent. I just need to knit together databases or to work out that we’re currently at X travelling at speed Y which will see us reach Z on such and such a date. Blind baking figures to order, as it were.
This makes the work unbearably monotonous. Each day blurs into the last, time smearing like oil paints on an easel into an indistinct grey. Same chair, same screen. Same co-workers saying the same things. Same work in the same time frame. Never quite knowing know what it is we’re doing or why.
“I can’t remember taking this one. Isn’t that weird?”
Beth was showing me some of the photographs she’d brought with her to Golden Door over lunch. They were mostly artfully chosen black and white landscapes and shots of buildings at weird angles. I found it odd that there weren’t any photographs of people. They were all completely still and lifeless as if all the people had gone away. It didn’t feel like they were coming back.
“I did do portraits. Not my preferred medium but for family, friends…boyfriends.”
“Do you have any of those with you?”
“No. No I left them all back in the city.”
She didn’t elaborate. It was our second week and I was relieved to find she too felt bemused by the nature of our work. She did seem to be adapting quicker than I was. She suggested I might spend less time holed up in my flat and try getting out and meeting people. Or, if I must be solitary, put my time alone to better use.
“Don’t you have something you do to…express yourself? An outlet? Writing, painting or whatever?”
“Beat poetry, jazz tambourine, interpretive dance?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“That must be pretty boring.”
She was right. I did need to find something to connect to while at Golden Door. We were warned before we came that communications with the outside world would be limited. Though the site has it’s own Intranet system there was no internet connectivity allowed. No email, no social media. The encryption that makes our work so baffling is just the first step of their security.
“So why did you want to leave the city and work here?”
“I don’t know. I was bored I guess.”
“Yeah. Let’s go with bored. Maybe if this here mug was full of wine and not coffee then I might spill my guts for you. But while I do like a latte and all it just doesn’t quite make me as loose lipped. So yeah. Bored.”
“I’ve got this theory that everyone here is running away from something.”
“Ooh, I like that. Tragic, dramatic. It’s an attractive idea. But I don’t think it’s got legs. Take Keith in the office. As much as I’d like to think he has a tortured soul beneath his dull, dull, dull exterior, I think the the idea of a massive wedge of cash every month and a golf course on his doorstep is just his idea of heaven.”
I laughed and said, “I haven’t spoken to Keith yet.”
“You haven’t spoken to anyone. Get out more, Phil. It’ll do you good.”
I must admit the isolation is hard for the staff here to deal with, even for natural born loners like myself. The idea is that people either work here for a single employment cycle, enjoy it the best they can, save their wages and then, once they’ve subjected themselves to a highly invasive search of themselves and all their belongings for any materials they may be trying to smuggle out, return to civilisation. Those who take repeat contracts can take extended unpaid leave between cycles to spend time with their loved ones. What concerns me is that so far I have neither seen nor heard about anyone leaving, either temporarily or for good.
After Beth’s pep talk I started spending time at the pub. It’s a nice enough place though while I do enjoy my evenings there it wasn’t long before they started to blur in with everything else. They became just another facet of the all pervasive sense of deja vu that hangs over Golden Door. It’s the same nights over and over in there. There are gaudy talent shows on the TV where the patrons debate the relative merits of what appear to be very similar people singing very similar songs. And there’s the football; everyone has an affiliation with one of the teams competing at the top, though so far as I can tell their reasons for having a side are completely arbitrary. One night I asked one of my colleagues how it was he came to follow a team from London despite being Scottish. I didn’t get an answer – just a fierce glowering at. I didn’t ask again. There’s a lot of pressure to pick a team myself as to be neutral and immune to the ‘banter’ is, it seems, unacceptable. Clashes between our teams come and go, bragging rights won and lost by people we have no connection to and don’t support in any way other than loud encouragements and admonishments directed at an indifferent screen.
These twin obsessions fuelled the conversation when it wasn’t occupied by the soap opera lives led by the estates residents. People seem to swap partners on a whim, leading to regular public arguments and moments of bizarre, entirely avoidable drama. I don’t know if it’s the distance from home making people act as if they’re on one long holiday or if they need the conflict just to mark the days. Anything to make them somehow distinct from each other. The nights go by in a drunken haze that seem to blend seamlessly into the yawning abyss of the working day. Time drifts by but everything stays the same.
It occurs to me that some of my memories from before must have gone already. Though it is hard to say for sure. How can you remember what it is you’ve forgotten? I must retain these lost memories in some form though, somewhere within me, perhaps imprinted in the marrow of my bones. They are, after all, the reason I am who I am. They shaped the way I speak, think, behave. I wasn’t born with this accent, these speech patterns, with the clichés I repeat always on the tip of my tongue. The things I have learned, the things that have molded my opinions, my tastes – they must remain somewhere within me.
If I am indeed the same man today that I was yesterday. Can I say for sure?
I’m worried what happens when I forget Claire completely. Will I still walk with this sense of loss weighing down upon me, even when it’s name is erased?
“I don’t think they mean anything. The numbers,” said Carl, “I think it’s part of the process. Busy work. Keep you docile.”
“You think everything is to keep people docile,” said Simon.
I met Simon and Carl in the bar and found them to be, unlike most of the people here, just about bearable. I took to spending the occasional evening in Simon’s flat playing videogames and chatting about nothing in particular. Carl spends most of his time colonising Simon’s sofa as a semi-lodger, slouched in perma-crumpled jeans and t-shirts, a mess of unkempt beard and greasy hair. He works at the cinema, who don’t seem to mind his lack of care for personal grooming. Simon works on 3rd so cuts a more respectable figure. He has the aura of a scientist who got lost on his way to the lab.
“Well, they’re pretty damn meek around here, aren’t they?” Neither Simon nor I disagreed, so he continued.
“Of course, you know they own the supermarket as well, don’t you?”
“Who?” I said.
“Golden Door,” said Carl. “Old Anwar may own the franchise but the parent company is owned by one Golden Door Holding Company. Same as the cinema and the golf course. It all comes back to them.”
“Well, that makes sense,” I said. “Why let anyone else take the profits from this little community’s spending? It’s self-sustaining. Very clever.”
“Maybe, but also why let anyone else supply us with the essentials? Food. Water. Everything. Control the essentials and you control the people.”
“They own the water?”
“Yeah. It’s included in your rent, right? And who are your landlords? Who are they paying the water rates to?”
“Uh, the water company?”
“They’re owned by GD Water. I checked it out before I came here: they don’t supply to anywhere else but here.”
“That doesn’t make sense. How can that be economically viable, serving such a small area?”
“It’s not about commerce, Phil. It’s about control.”
“Control? They already have the power to fire us or evict us whenever they want. What else do they need?”
“What they need is irrelevant. If they can take it, they will. Wake up, man..”
He continued expounding his theory .Microcosms of social control destined to be rolled out to the rest of Western society somehow. A more pliant workforce even further divorced from understanding their labour. Simon ignored him, clearly having heard this rant a few times already, instead choosing to battle through the sword and sorcery game we’d been playing. I listened with amused interest. Upon scrutiny it didn’t make any sense but he believed it with a fervour I couldn’t help but envy.
I asked them if they’d been having trouble with their memory. They didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Or at least they pretended not to. So I tried a different approach and asked Carl about his family back home instead. He said he didn’t want to talk about them as they were the reason he’d moved to Golden Door. He shaped as if he was about to share a couple of details anyway but stopped mid-sentence. He looked terrified for a moment, staring off at the wall as if he were trying to make out the shapes of his past on the wallpaper. He let out a small laugh of what I presume was disbelief. I was about to ask him if he could remember anything at all but Simon intervened.
“Eat it you giant green bastard!” he yelled, controller held aloft in victory,. “And that’s how we do that.” He’d defeated an end of level boss and so held the pad out for Carl to take his turn. When he didn’t respond, still lost in the disintegrating caverns of his memory, he tapped him on the shoulder with it. And with that the spell broke. Carl turned to fight imaginary demons on the screen and it was as if the realisation of just a moment prior had never happened.
No one here seems to enjoy their jobs. But none of them appear to find it as horrifying as I do. I haven’t seen anyone else gripping the end of their desk until their fingers turn white. They are unfulfilled, they are frustrated – but they are somehow not terrified by the swarms of meaningless numbers that buzz around their heads all day.
Indeed they’ve been most helpful to me, trying their utmost to get me involved in office life. And in turn I have tried to be part of ‘the family’. I’ve discussed the weather earnestly and often. I’ve made countless rounds of tea. I’ve learned all the week’s stock phrases.
‘I’ll be better when it’s Friday!’
Then: ‘At least it’s Friday!’
And then the inevitable: ‘I can’t believe it’s Monday already!’
I have even gotten involved in controversies over missing milk and passionate debates over whether or not we should have the windows open. And I’ve gotten to know all my colleagues and their quirks. Keith, the low level banter merchant who keeps messing with Ben’s PC settings when he’s away from his desk. And who never fills up the kettle after using it, much to everyone’s annoyance. Libby, who asks question after question in team meetings in an effort to appear engaged but just ends up irritating everyone. Andrea, who seems addicted to the rage she feels at the PCs when they don’t do her bidding immediately.
I have, in every way I can think of, made an effort.
But little by little the monotony has gnawed at my spirit. Little by little I have sunk back into myself. And one by one they’ve retreated. I still sense that we’re all in the same boat, that we share a sense of loss among us, that feeling of grief for something that was once a part of us and now is not. And now and again I glimpse a timid light burning deep behind their eyes. But in the end they’re just better at putting up a front than I, which puts a distance between us that can’t ever truly be shortened or crossed.
I feel as if wake up a different person most days now. My memory each morning is naught but inklings over what happened in the days and weeks previous, vague feelings about where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I have this diary waiting on my bedside table every day so the first thing I see on a morning is the big red letters spelling out READ ME that I scrawled on the front as big as I could. It acts as a sort of reset button. And then I’m me again.
No one seems to want to discuss their memory issues. Whenever I ask they change the subject, and the more I mention it the less popular I become. So I mention it less and less, reduced to hints and subtle attempts to steer the conversation in that direction. I tried my hand at that at Carl and Simon’s again today but before I could get anywhere they began discussing something else.
“Have you ever been to that weird little museum near reception?” asked Simon.
“The visitors area? Yeah. Tragic little thing, isn’t it?” said Carl.
“Also kind of pointless. Who’s coming to visit us?”
“Some of our stakeholders I guess.”
“I’ve never seen anyone bother. And why would they care why this place was built?”
“It’s that glass case that freaks me out. The pictures in the paper of Simmond’s dad standing on the site when they were starting to build. He looks just like him. It’s kinda creepy.”
“I’ve not been down yet,” I said. “What’s the story?”
“Apparently archaeologists dug up this area just after the war,” said Simon. “There was a Roman settlement here once. Old man Simmonds was part of some group who funded the dig. All they found was a subterranean river, after which the dig was abandoned. Then Simmonds bought the land and started building instead. Which must have sounded mental at the time but he seems to have done alright out of it.”
After leaving them I went down and had a look at the exhibit for myself. The family resemblance is indeed uncanny. His eyes peer out of the yellowed newspaper and I feel like that familiar sensation of have my value weighed and found wanting. There isn’t much more information in the exhibit than what Simon told me. There seem to have been some disgruntled archaeologists annoyed they didn’t get more time on the dig and claimed they were denied some grand find. They claimed the river itself was worthy of study for some reason. But the courts didn’t see it that way. And so here we are.
As strange and unreal and antiseptic a little enclave as this is the idea of leaving only occurred to me earlier tonight. And even now I find it hard to find the conviction to go. Despite my feelings about Golden Door the warm glow of the park lights through my apartment window have somehow begun to feel like home. Every time I catch myself feeling that was I shudder with revulsion.
I met Beth for a drink earlier tonight. She looked quite formal and business like; I assumed she’d come straight from the office but it seems her old alternative clothing is dropping out of rotation. After a few drinks I told her I was still struggling to adjust, expecting the same affectionate mocking I usually get from her. But instead she seemed exasperated. I made some offhand comment about the suffocating corporate nature of Golden Door and to my surprise she started defending it.
“I thought you were one of us. Another black sheep of the “family,” I said, making exaggerated airquotes at the last part.
“Look Phillip, I came here to start again. So that’s what I’m doing. Besides, the place has been good to me.”
“Good to you how?”
“It gave me a place to run to. And I’ve met some really cool people while I’ve been here.”
I put down my drink and stared at her for a moment. I knew she wasn’t referring to me.
“Glynn is really nice – you’d really like him.”
I didn’t have plans for me and Beth to become anything more than friends, so it wasn’t jealousy that made me angry. It was the manner in which she was speaking. I sensed her edge was becoming blunted. That she was submitting to the norms of Golden Door and losing her sense of self. But I held my tongue, aware of the impression she might get if I appeared upset, and let her tell me all about him.
Later I asked her how her photography had been going.
“Have you managed to find an angle that makes Golden Door look interesting?”
“Yeah,” she said, “as a matter of fact I’ve submitted a few to be put up around the office.”
“Isn’t your style a bit…melancholy for that?”
“Well, I’ve lightened it up a bit. I don’t want to make the workplace too depressing, right?”
“Why not? It would be nice if the place felt a bit more…y’know. Human.”
She went quiet for a moment, playing with a beer matt and looking in every direction but mine. I waited for her to say what she needed to say.
“So I’ve seen a job on 5th I’m applying for.”
“You’re chasing a promotion? I thought you were just doing one cycle and then you’re out?”
“That was the plan. But I’m starting to like it here. Either I make some extra cash before I go back or I carry on here for a while. What’s the big deal?”
“I dunno. I just didn’t think you’d be into all that.”
“All that what? My job? That’s what I came for, Phil.” She sighed. “What about you? How long are you going to stay here before you decide to actually try and make it work?”
I didn’t plan to say it. But in one blurted statement I’d decided to leave. I hadn’t thought about it at all but once I’d said it it made sense. Why was I staying here? What had Golden Door given me? And if I left would I start to remember again? I still have no proof my problems are linked to this place but it’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me.
I felt like I had little to lose so I asked Beth if her memories of whatever it was that triggered her to come here had started to fade. She just asked me if I was feeling alright and suggested I go see the doctor before making any rash decisions. She put her hand on mine and looked me in the eyes as she said it and I could still see that hurt, lost look in her eyes. I thought about asking her if she was glad to be forgetting whatever caused it, if she felt it was something she was comfortable leaving behind. But she’d already made clear she wanted to be here. So I told her I’d think about it and left it at that.
I’ve been asking around to see if anyone’s cycle is up soon and if they’d be willing to smuggle me out of here. But no one is making any plans to leave Golden Door. Given the number of employees here you’d think someone would be going most weeks but I’ve still never heard of anyone leaving. Last night I snuck down to the car park, which is tucked away down a hill a good half mile from the main bulk of the village. I’m not sure what my plan was, I guess I was thinking of trying some of the doors to see if they were unlocked. Not that I’d have know what to do if I got into one. I didn’t have the kind of childhood that taught me how to steal a car. There was a decent sized car park that was about half full, if that. It didn’t make any sense – I know a good few of us took the bus here but given the number of employees at Golden Door it seemed like a bizarrely small number of cars. Then I noticed what looked like a forgotten footpath, a trail of dirt largely reclaimed by grass, running away from the carpark round to the other side of the hill.
I followed it and couldn’t believe what I saw. A second abandoned car park, a sea of dirty, rusted metal. It’s more like a junkyard than a car park. How long have they been there? I don’t know much about cars but some of the models there looked like they were from a different era altogether. I wanted to explore further but a security guard spotted me and I had to make a break for it. Given the terms of the confidentiality agreement we signed I dread to think what they’d do if they caught me down there. It stops short of, “on pain of death” but you get the sense they didn’t include that is for legal reasons.
I called on Beth on my way home and tried to explain what I’d seen but she just looked worried about me. I tried to get her to see for herself but she was on her way out on a date and reasoned that due to the work cycles the cars would look a bit dirty after being sat there for a few months. But I know what I saw it was rust and decay. She wouldn’t listen.
I need to leave as soon as possible. And as much as I’d like to save Beth I’m going to have to go alone.
From the corner table of one of the coffee shops at Golden Door you can see the road, the only thing that connects Golden Door to the world at large. I’ve been spending my lunch times, and a few hours after work most days, at that table watching it for signs of traffic. I planned to dash out and jump on the first bus I saw or, failing that, try and hitch a ride in any car that would take me. But the road is dead. I can no longer remember the details of the bus I caught here or the route we took. I couldn’t even tell you if we are in the North or the South. But surely someone must come by here now and again, on their way to somewhere, from somewhere. Or so you’d think.
Yesterday I got so frustrated I decided that I’d just walk out of here. I figured it couldn’t be that far to the nearest village or service station or whatever. From there I’d get a taxi to the nearest town or city. And if I found someone on the road willing to give me a ride – all the better. The gate is usually manned but not religiously so, presumably because no one else would be dumb enough to leave without transportation. Yesterday afternoon at lunch I watched until it was empty and walked out. I looked up and down the road and tried to remember which way my bus had arrived from. But I couldn’t quite bring it to mind. The memory of that day and most of the ones since seem shrouded in mist.
I gave up trying to remember and decided to flip a coin. Heads I go left, tails I go right.
I was walking for what felt like a lifetime. Fields and forest stretched out to the horizon on one side of me with a hill looming over me on the other. None of the land appeared to belong to anyone; the closest I came to seeing something approaching civilisation was a barn in an overgrown field. I went looking for life in there but the growth of the weeds, the rusted wheelbarrow and cobwebbed walls suggested it had not been used in some time. I don’t know how many miles I walked. I must have set off in the wrong direction I thought; my journey through the countryside on my way here couldn’t have been as long as this. But even in the wrong direction I was sure I’d come to a town, a village, or just a house to call that taxi from. But I didn’t.
After a while night came and buried me in darkness. It descended quickly; before I’d noticed the sun setting it was dark all around me. There were no street lights along the road, and all I could see was the barest hint of a dull light where the moon sat behind a veil of cloud. Before long I had to rely on the feeling of concrete beneath my feet to know that I was still on the road.
I’m not ashamed to say I was afraid. I had no idea where I was or what I should do out there lost amidst the black. The dark around me felt like it had a presence. I swear I felt it surrounding me, enveloping me. As my eyes adjusted to the lack of light I managed to make out shapes. But what I saw didn’t bring me any comfort. I’m well aware how it sounds; I’m sure should anyone read this they’d be inclined to side with Beth and question my mental state. But I can best describe what I saw as silhouettes somehow darker than the night, shadows cast without light. They appeared as formless figures lining the road, their outlines indistinct. What they were I’ve no name for but I felt that they were watching me. I felt like a one man procession before a silent audience.
There cannot have been people out there. And even if it were possible for people to have been along the sides of the road I know that whatever it was I saw was not human. Whenever I close my eyes I can still feel the horrible sensation of being watched by something without a trace of humanity.
My breathing got shallower. I began to tremble. I felt like I was drowning in darkness. I tried to force myself onward but eventually I fell to my knees feeling completely lost.
“Please”, I asked whatever force was out there that could help me. Any god would do. I couldn’t manage a specific request. Just that single, helpless utterance.
My quiet prayers were answered. I saw lights, faint and distant. A vehicle. I couldn’t be sure whether the driver would see me but after forcing myself back on my feet I decided to stay in the road. I couldn’t risk them missing me. I couldn’t bear another moment there cradled by darkness.
The lights got brighter and brighter until I could make out the front of the vehicle. A car. And the driver did indeed see me. It pulled up alongside me, but the sweet relief I felt at being saved drained out of me as I looked into the side window and saw Simmonds peering back out.
“Phil! What the devil are you doing out here?” he asked.
“Uh, I was…walking to town..”
“Walking?! Good god, that’s hours away!”
“But I’ve been walking for hours, I…I don’t understand.”
He stared at me for a while, likely weighing up just what was had gone wrong with this employee of his to cause him to stagger half crazed through the night into the wilderness. Then he asked me to get in for a lift back to Golden Door. I didn’t have the strength to argue. I asked him where he’d been – he told me he’d been to see some friends in town.
“You shouldn’t be out here, Phil. This is a serious breach of contract.”
I didn’t respond. I was so exhausted I wouldn’t have known where to begin.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Despite having walked all day it was less than an hour before I was back in my room. None of it makes sense. The distance, the lack of life out there, Simmonds happening by me. So far as I’m aware he never leaves the village. I can’t help but feel like he somehow knew I’d be out there, that he’d been sent to collect me, like a shepherd after a wayward lamb. But by whom? Before I wrote all this down I scribbled some words onto the back of my hand to see when I wake up:
“Who is Mr Simmonds?”
Despite his threat I haven’t spoken to Simmonds since that night. But I’ve been watching him. Making notes. He goes into the office around 6:30am and spends his days in an endless parade of meetings. He buys his lunch at the same coffee shop in which I spent my roadside vigils and eats it back in his office. He’s always friendly, always courteous. Always has a joke about the weather or something similarly innocuous. He pays his money into the tea fund in advance. And he usually leaves any time between 6pm and 9pm.
Usually. I’ve noticed one unusual thing about his routine – some days he doesn’t leave the office at all. Yesterday I’m almost certain he was here overnight. He lives in the only free standing private property on the place, a house at the edge of the golf course. From Simon’s top floor flat you can just about see it. When I told him I needed to commandeer his window to spy on Simmonds he told me I was losing my mind. Which is, I suppose, to be expected. I realise how odd all this must seem. I didn’t dare tell him about my long walk through the dark. I couldn’t think of a way to articulate it that wouldn’t make it sound like he was right.
Being the amenable guy he is he humoured my request. We stayed up all night binging on coffee and watching the house. He even took up watch for me while I went to the bathroom or took over his game for a break. Neither of us saw Simmonds that night. There were no signs of activity in the property at all. Simon thinks he’s just a workaholic. “The price of being the boss,” as he put it. But I have an indescribable feeling that there’s something in those offices he needs to tend to. Something at the heart of this cursed place. And I need to know, for the sake of my sanity, what it is.
I’ve been exploring the office building and I’m certain whatever it is Simmons is hiding is in the basement. On the surface nothing seems unusual down there. The walls are all exposed bricks lined with shelving and the concrete floor is home to a mess of industrial hoovers and carpet cleaners. But there is a door down there. A door that whenever I’ve been down is locked.
It could be more storage, more cleaning supplies. That would be the logical explanation. But when I asked one of the cleaning staff about the door he told me they’d never been given a key. And when I look through the keyhole I can just about make out a flight of stairs that appear to be headed further down into some sort of sub-basement.
I need to know what’s down there.
I must write this down fast, now, before I forget. It’s 6am now – I’ve no idea where the past few hours have gone. And while now I sit here on my bed a short while ago I was somewhere else – a place I don’t recall leaving.
I’ve been waiting for Simmonds to stay in the office overnight again. Last night it happened. I stayed in the office until I was sure that he was staying behind again, then I bid him farewell and made my way down the stairs to the basement. I hid down amongst the vacuum and carpet cleaners and waited.
It may not have been the most clever plan ever concocted. The hours I spent sat on the cold floor waiting don’t rank amongst the most exciting I’ve ever experienced. But they did give me time to take a mental step back and see how Simon and Beth must be right; I have gone out of my mind. I was stalking my boss. I’m aware this is not normal behaviour. This place, this routine of work, drink and sleep on endless repeat, has taken a toll on me. As for my memory lapses, well, there’s no denying the stress and the alcohol is damaging me. My mental state is suffering. I know I’m not well – I can still just about remember the therapy sessions I was ordered to have after Sarah left. And I’ve never really stopped grieving. Far from giving me respite that I’d hoped for Golden Door has instead brought it all boiling to the surface.
I started to realise how ridiculous it was that I should find myself sat on a concrete floor in the basement of an office building far from home conducting some half-cocked investigation into my own boss. I must have looked quite the sight sat there, leant against an industrial vacuum cleaner grinning madly to myself.
Thankfully Simmonds wasn’t able to take in that sight as he came down the stairs behind me. Instead he walked by me, oblivious, and unlocked the door. He stepped through and closed it behind him and left it unlocked. As I hoped he would; it would have been a long wait for nothing if he hadn’t. The amusement at my situation that I’d felt a few moments ago was swept aside by curiosity and suspicion once more. Any reservations I had about my mental state did nothing to stop me creeping towards the door. With my hand on the handle I took a deep breath and asked myself what I hoped to achieve by following Simmonds down. What I needed most of all was some rest. I had to turn back.
Then it hit me. Claire. Her name was Claire. In my mind I’d just called her Sarah.
I took slow, quiet steps towards the stairs. From atop the staircase it looked almost exactly the same as the basement I’d just left. Only it was was much taller, perhaps as much as twice the height. I hesitated atop the stairs, not knowing what I’d say if Simmonds were to turn and see me down here. There was no plausible excuse I could come up with.
I don’t know what I expected to see as I edged onwards. But the sight that came into view as I crept down the stairs wasn’t it. The room was entirely empty apart from Simmonds standing in it’s centre. The concrete floor and breeze block walls were bare. For a moment it appeared he’d come to stand here, motionless, in an empty basement. But when I stepped down a little further the back wall came into view. It was different to the other walls; it seemed to be made of rock. It was as if when they had dug down and cleared the area for the room they left one wall untouched. And in the centre of that wall was a giant, ornate door.
A door made of gold.
The frame was perhaps a metre thick all around, decorated with etchings of what appeared to be figures gathered at the side of a river. Engraved across the door itself was a large tree, it’s branches dripping with water. It was so gaudy and ornate it stood completely at odds with the dull office basement that surrounded it, and Simmonds too looked bizarre standing, head bowed and motionless before it. As incongruous as it all looked there was something familiar about it; it felt like a scene that had been played out long before, like the dull, warped echo of some long forgotten ritual.
I could just about hear a faint murmuring coming from him. He raised his head and walked towards the door. Then he reached forward and with some visible effort pushed the massive doors open. And then it seeped in. That great dark. It dissipated into the room like a visible gas. I find it almost impossible to describe its appearance; it was as much the sudden absence of something as it was a thing in itself. It looked at once like the tendrils of some great living thing, yet at the same time like it wasn’t even even there, like the shadow of a ghost. It was in a state completely alien to anything I’ve ever come across. The light seemed to fade, even though I could see the light bulb burning clear as ever as the dark stretched out and consumed it’s light.
I wanted to move but I stood transfixed as it reached out to me. As it drifted round my ankles I felt the strangest sensation. I felt like it was pulling me towards it…no, no that’s not quite it. It was more like something deep within me was being drawn out and into that unfathomable black. I felt the feeling you get when you realise you’ve lost something you know you can never get back. That feeling that something dear has left this world and nothing can replace it, that the rest of your days will have to be lived with your feeling irrevocably less than you were while it was with you.
I looked into the dark and saw those figures I’d seen beside the road in the doorway. I remembered them and my long walk at once when I saw them – and for a brief moment everything flooded back to me. All my memories lit up in my mind brighter than they’d ever been. They flashed through my mind’s eye at a pace that left me dizzy. It was like an old film reel cranked up to some ridiculous speed, and it seemed inevitable that when it stopped I should be left trapped in the memory I least wanted to recall.
I swear I was there again, looking into Claire’s eyes and realising that when she said she had to leave she meant to never come back. I was there again, feeling the desperate, hopeless words slipping from my mouth, pleading with her, listing all our happiest moments and the plans we had made, a presentation on us to convince her we were worth holding on to. And she was there, telling me she was sorry, that she couldn’t cope with living with me anymore.
“It’s not working. Let’s face it: you’re broken, Phil. And I’m sorry but I can’t fix you. No matter how much you want me to. I just can’t.”
I couldn’t breath. It felt winded, like I’d landed heavily on the ground and had the air knocked out of me. I held myself up by the staircase railing as my knees started to buckle. My vision started to blur. I don’t know how long I fought for but I’m convinced that before my consciousness left me I saw Simmond’s face peering back at me through the murk. In his eyes I saw something that terrified me more than anything else I’ve witnessed at Golden Door. There was no pity, in those eyes no real recollection of me.
All I saw in those eyes was a great weariness. And, more than that, boredom.
I feel weak writing this. I need to sleep. My head hurts. My hair is matted with blood – I must have hit my head when I fell. I don’t know what happens now. I can’t go into work tomorrow – even if I had the strength to face it I have no idea what Simmonds will do.
I got a knock on my door around noon. I spent the morning hiding – there’s no other word for it, I had no semblance of a plan – when Ben and Keith arrived to summon me. They told me that Simmonds had sent them over. People were worried about me, they said. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, despite my insistence that I was too ill to leave the flat. So I cleaned myself up and went with them.
They led me straight to his office. When I sat down Simmonds didn’t say anything for some time. He just looked at me with an expression I couldn’t ever hope to decode. Then eventually he smiled at me, leaned forward and asked,
“Is everything ok, Phil?”
After an awkward moment of silence I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. The brazenness of it astounded me – laughter was the only sensible reaction.
“Do you remember anything about last night?” he asked. I looked him dead in the eye and told him I remembered everything.
“Then you’ll remember me trying to carry you home in the early hours after finding you asleep in the office entrance? And having to call security when you refused to go?” I started to speak but he interrupted. “We all like to have a drink, Phil. But people are concerned that you’ve been going a little overboard lately, and last night…well, when security are having to get you home I think it’s time to have a think about things.”
‘So this is how he’s going to play it’, I thought. Make out like I’m some crazy drunk, discredit me before I’ve even tried to tell anyone about what I saw. I said: that’s not what happened.
“You don’t remember, do you? Well, I’m not surprised. You were in quite a state. You can ask security if you like. That’s where you got that little bump on your head. You were determined not to be moved.” He sighed. “You were really far gone, Phil. I’m worried about you. First you’re out walking in the dark to god knows where, now you’re found drunk and asleep outdoors in the middle of the night. I think you need help. We have a very good therapist here at Golden Door..”
“I think I’d like to hand in my resignation.”
This was the only card I had to play. I hoped it would at least knock him off balance but he just smiled and said;
“How long do you think you’ve been here, Phil?”
“How long have you been here?”
“About 4 months.”
There’s something about the way he phrased the question the first time – and the flicker of a smile when I answered – that terrified me.
“4 months. And our working cycle is 12 months. I’m afraid I can’t accept your resignation: you’re under contract and we can’t let staff leave early. Without our cast iron confidentiality we’d lose all our clients. You know that. Besides, I think you need some time to get your head together.”
He clasped his hands together and leaned forward, his unblinking gaze gripping me like a boa constrictor.
“Look, I know losing Claire has been hard on you. I think you ought to take some time to think about it. Take the rest of the week off.”
And then he shifted tone to deliver what sounded like a threat:
“I think you’ll feel different soon.”
With that he sent me on my way. I’ve been trying to think of a course of action since but whichever way I look at it I can’t see a way out. And the part about it that’s been eating away at me since that meeting is that, even though my memories are almost gone, I’m certain I’ve never once mentioned Claire to him or to anyone else at Golden Door.
I’ve been avoiding Beth. I had to retreat to Simon’s flat to avoid her today – she came knocking on my door twice earlier, knowing full well that I was in but not answering, so I left before she took up residence outside my door. I can’t face her and her concern right now. Word has gotten around about my supposed drunken incident. I assumed Carl and Simon, who seemed not to care about much at all, would be safe company.
I was wrong. They were both acting strange as soon as I got there. It took them a while to tell me they’d heard about what happened and to ask, in typically awkward fashion, if they could help. I tried to tell them that there was something wrong with this place.
“I’ve been telling you that since you got here,” said Carl. I said there was something worse than anything in his conspiracy theories at the heart of Golden Door. Something dark. Something old. They exchanged glances as I spoke, worried looks that only served to make me angry. Being disbelieved by the local conspiracy nuts when you’ve stumbled on an actual conspiracy – that was too much to take. Simon tried to tell me that I needed help, that I should see the therapist. I turned to walk out – just in time to watch Beth walk in and complete the ambush. The next hour, their ‘intervention,’ was a blur of tears and pleading.
Carl: “You’ve got to get your drinking under control, man.”
Simon: “You need help. Go talk to the doctor, see what they can do. Simmonds will give you time off if you need therapy or whatever…”
Beth: “You need to do something. You can’t keep drinking yourself into oblivion pining over Claire. It’s time to let go.”
I looked her in the eyes and asked her how she knew about Claire. She said I’d drunkenly told half the people at Golden Door about it at some point or another. Which is just insane – I’d remember having done that.
I tried one last time to ask them about their memories. I asked them to search their mind’s and tell me, honestly, if they could remember anything of their lives before Golden Door. They just looked at each other, so I went for broke.
“What about all the rusted and ruined cars in the old car park? Haven’t you been out there? It’s not right, it’s like a scene from something a…a post-apocalyptic movie or something! Like a scene from after the bombs fell! Have you ever seen or heard about anyone leaving Golden Door? Anyone at all? I tried to leave. I was walking for hours and I saw nothing. Nothing! Something was keeping me here. I don’t know what. And those things…those things by the roadside. They weren’t human. I know how it sounds but you’ve got to believe me. It’s all wrong. It’s something to do with what’s down in the basement…”
“What’s in the basement, Phil?” asked Simon through a sigh.
“I don’t know what it is but Simmonds keeps it, keeps it out of sight. Tends to it. Prays to it or something. There’s something in the basement that’s feeding on our memories and keeping us trapped here…””
“That’s enough Phil!” said Beth, rushing towards me and taking me in her arms. She held me tight and sobbed. Carl was looking at his feet awkwardly while Simon just shook his head sadly.
“Can you hear yourself, Phil? Can you?”
It was clear to me then that if I had any allies here I’ve none left now. I let them once again tell me how worried they were and ask me to seek help. I said I would – I’m not sure what they’d have done if I hadn’t. But I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know what I can do.
“This is amazing – I’m only going up a few floors! You’ll still see me, like, all the time!”
Beth was being congratulated by the staff on getting the job on 5th. I still feel like the new guy here yet people act like she’s an old friend. It’s like this place exists only in the moment – the past is pliable, malleable, whatever people decide it is today.
And yet I couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy watching everyone congratulate her with hugs and what appeared to be genuine affection. We came here at the same time after all. And as much as I loathe this place there was a moment looking at Beth that made me feel if we traded places I could at least find some solace in achieving something. It has to be better than this noxious haze I exist in now.
Simmonds stood applauding to one side after she’d finished talking. He’d made a speech of his own earlier about how valuable she was to Golden Door and how hard work was always rewarded here. While everyone swarmed her to look at the bracelet we’d all whipped round to buy her he set off towards his office. He made a bee-line for me along the way. He placed a hand on my shoulder and spoke into my ear:
“That could be you, Phil. There’s an opening coming up you’d be perfect for.”
He drew back and looked me in the eyes. If I didn’t know him I swear I saw something close to actual concern as he clasped my arm and said,
“Think about it.”
I’ve stopped reading this diary every morning. It’s getting too long to get through before I head into the office. I’ve thought about writing a summary to get myself up to speed each day. But then I thought: why should I do that to myself? As I read it today each entry was like picking a fresh scab, opening a wound. I felt the fear, the nausea, the helplessness all over again. Why would I keep doing that to myself willingly? Who does that kind of masochism serve?
Carl and Simon, the most cynical people I know, refused to believe what I had seen. Not that I blame them. An inexplicable phenomenon that no one would want to believe as presented by a drunk pariah. It is, as they say, a tough sell. Maybe if I had proof I could show people. But show them what? What precisely is it that I’ve seen? And what would they do? They all seem content with whatever is happening here. And whatever it is that came seeping through the Golden Door doesn’t seem to have had any ill effects on the residents. Quite the opposite – no one seems to take sick days here. The therapists may be busy but the medical centre only ever seems to treat minor accidents.
It only seems to affect their memories. And the people who come here seem to be those who don’t miss their past. They welcome the slate being scoured clean.
So instead I’ve started seeing the therapist. Funnily enough she said I should think about keeping a diary. She thinks the issues with my memory are down to losing Claire and still being unable to process the loss. I told her I wanted to remember, that I had no desire to forget her. She said that’s why precisely I had.
Satisfied that I was getting help Simmonds has put me forward for the job he mentioned. I think the interview went well. Beth, who has been treating me like I’m made of glass, seems inordinately proud of me. Her coddling is patronising but to be honest I’m glad she still cares enough to make the effort. Her and Glynn are a nice couple – I’ve been out with them a few times now, including one wildly unsuccessful double date with a woman from 5th. They seem to still be in the honeymoon phase, which is to be expected after a couple of months. But I can’t help but wonder how their relationship will evolve with it’s past being continually erased, a fading trail left only a short distance behind them. I’m interested to find out but I fear with my own memory failing I won’t even notice if things remain the same forever.
“Welcome to the 5th Floor,” said Beth, greeting me with a slice of homemade carrot cake.
“Thanks. It feels good to move up in the world. Literally!”
We both said, ‘literally’ at the same time and laughed. My desk is next to the window, which means I have the solemn duty to regulate the temperature in my immediate vicinity. My desk neighbour Stacey has already started complaining I keep it open too often. But I keep making her coffee, which keeps her quiet mostly.
I celebrated a successful first day with a few drinks with Carl, Simon, Beth and Glynn. We’ve all started hanging out together from time to time. We’ve got a decent team for the pub quiz between us. I’ve been vocally supporting Spurs in the pub – being part of the discussion is much more fun than watching from the sidelines. I’ve even started seeing someone – a girl from 4th. Sarah. It’s early days but I’ve got a good feeling about it. It already feels like we’ve known each other forever.
Today was the first time I read this diary from start to finish in a long while. It reads like fiction now, like someone else’s story. I have no desire to go see the door again after reading about it. And why would I? If you’re the only one staring into the abyss and no one else wishes to look why would you not avert your gaze?
I’ve gradually been stirred into the grand solution that is Golden Door. The sense of deja vu that I resisted so fiercely has become something much less threatening, almost comforting. Here we are trapped in the amber of routine, encased in the everlasting now.
And somehow it feels alright.
It’s time I let go of the past these pages remind me of. I’ve started a new diary as recommended, one fresh from the fear and frustration that marred this one. But there’s is one thing I will return to this diary for. Something I can’t bear to forget. Why I came here. The girl who tore me into pieces so small I had to come all this way to begin to put them back together again.
Claire. Whether I ever see her again or not I need to remember her. I need to remember how it felt. Without that all of this means nothing.
I just need to keep her name close to me. Even though I barely remember a thing about her I only need to read her name to know it belongs to the ache I carry deep in me.
Claire. Her name was Claire.
Claire. Her name was Claire. She was the moon and the stars in my sky.
Claire. Her name was Claire. When we parted I thought I’d fade into nothing.
Claire. Her name was Claire.
Claire. Her name was Claire. Wherever she is she carries pieces of me with her.
Claire. Her name was Claire. And whoever she was that’s all that’s left of her.