Nicola Probert is an artist and film maker. This short story is taken from 17.17, a collection of writing and imagery by Nicola, planned for publication later this year
I walked down into the room and it was crowded. There were already too many people, jammed into this underground room. There were no windows. The walls chipped terracotta plaster to reveal industrial brown-grey concrete underneath. The air was smoky, but I couldn’t see anyone smoking. It was humid too, from all the crammed bodies. I pushed through to get a better view, stopping before I got right to the front, two or three rows back but good enough to see. Hidden by the crowd I found a line of sight between bodies. I stood to watch.
I knew him. I didn’t want him to see me. I didn’t want to be right up front but I wanted to see what was happening. People were cheering, clapping, jeering. He was an object of fascination, trapped in the performance with no way out.
Each of his limbs were sandwiched between narrow planks of wood, nailed together, wedged in. Both legs, arms, neck and head extruded like this at an awkward, unnatural angle. Encased by wood, concealing any understanding of the position’s physical possibility. For it appeared physically impossible: a magic trick that somehow he was the centre of. I couldn’t imagine what was happening under the wood. His legs, arms, neck, head stretched out and splayed. The position resembled a terrified animal. A stray cat. Frozen mid-air in a nervy flight of fear. Nailed into the moment like a claustrophobic coffin.
I couldn’t see his eyes, I imagined them wide open, his head clamped, tilted downwards. I could just see the top of his head, his thinning hair and the upper rim of his glasses. I imagined eyeballs scratching over the cracks along the floor. The smoke around him clung in clumps, partially obscuring the view of his head. A long, thin, copper tube protruded from somewhere, I couldn’t quite see where. I assumed it was his mouth. I thought of his face, how it must be deep red, ready to explode with strain. The delicate copper tube the only outlet for the colossal pressure – releasing fine, controlled measures of smoke in light, rhythmical intervals.
As smoke emerged in precise formations, shapes and rhythms intricately considered, the crowd applauded, amazed – cheering encouragingly, jeering, wanting more. Oblivious to his discomfort, as he had no choice, clamped at the centre of their gaze.
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