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Three days ago the whole house had been placed into lockdown. The students had been told that they could not leave the house; that the one external door would be no longer activated to open for them.

In theory, the students were in disgrace. Locking down their accommodation was meant to be the gravest punishment that was available to the authorities. In practice, it was growing increasingly apparent to the students that the lockdown was actually a relief. Everybody in the locked-down house was now allowed to socialise freely with each other, wherever they wanted to, whereas they had been previously required to mix only in “bubbles” that had been organised by the authorities.

These bubbles had been a universal irritant. Every student had felt that every other bubble was far livelier or happier than the one that they had been assigned to. In truth, each bubble had been only ever perfect as an administrative unit, on a spreadsheet, and they had promptly withered and died as soon as they had come to life, like frogspawn hatching out onto dry cement.

This evening, the students on Amir’s floor were all going to hold a party in their pantry. Somehow, despite this house being supposedly sealed from the outside world, bottles of alcohol had permeated its membrane. They had been no doubt absorbed through its walls, flowing up to each successive floor via osmosis. Amir did not interest himself in the exact mechanism by which his housemates would come to have drinks in their hands. His own mind was impervious to alcohol and no curiosity towards it had ever stirred in him, even a flicker.

We are over two decades into the twenty-first century. By now it is quite normal for people who live together, even in the densest slums, to sit in their rooms of an evening communicating only on Whatsapp. There was a group chat for Amir’s floor and he periodically made sure to catch up on its backlog of contents. This evening, however, he was monitoring it more alertly.

The other students were beginning to comment merrily on their grooming and makeup routines. One girl had a ball of fairy-lights and she was sharing her plan to entwine them all around the worktops of the pantry. But the students would have to tear down the lights in a matter of seconds if any of the authorities happened to pay a visit. The lights were not compliant with UK standards and so the students could be fined for using them.

After 1800, Reggie left a comment. Amir’s heart always quickened at this, as though it was a previously unnoticed dancer that had stepped into the foreground and started to foxtrot busily. Reggie rarely bothered to contribute to the chat. Today, though, he had plonked down a photo of a bunch of canned beers. In return, he had been inundated with approving emojis.      

At 2000, Amir dressed for the party. He knew that he always looked distinctly too formal but today he was not going to become discouraged. Reggie never appeared to notice Amir’s incongruous, hopeless, shiny-shoed smartness.

After dressing, Amir sat in the room. It was darkling now but he felt a strange absence of desire to switch on the room’s lights. Next, he had snuck swiftly, softly, from his chair and over to the bed. He had barely even lain down and let his muscles relax on his skeleton before he had lost consciousness.

When he awoke it was totally dark and for a moment panic was surging through him in thick, fast, chemical waves. He had to be somewhere and it was already too late but he could not say who he was or what he had to do so urgently. Then he looked at his phone and it was only 2020. As if his panic had never existed, all of his knowledge about the evening had rushed back and dropped securely into place. It was still very early and if he appeared at the party at this time it would occasion no great astonishment.

Nobody had added to the chat. Indeed, the last message – Reggie’s, notifying them about the beer – seemed irksomely familiar, as if it had been posted there now for years.  

When Amir stepped out of his room, he was stopped short by how eerily quiet the corridor appeared to be. The silence radiated down the corridor like it was the sound of hundreds of discreet wheels turning and grinding. There was no suggestion of any voices even just beyond earshot. As Amir began to proceed down the corridor, the normal speaking of voices continued to be defiantly withheld.

Amir was annoyed to find himself stuck with this suspense that he could not rid himself of, like it was a noisy baby that he had been unexpectedly left holding. He stopped in the corridor again and stood listening. By chance, he happened to remember some words that he had overheard a worker, a Polish man, uttering a couple of weeks ago in this corridor. The Polish man had been delivering food parcels and he had been bustling contemptuously around the doors of the rooms. At one point he had turned and expounded what he was thinking to a co-worker, who had been tripping after him carrying a wad of keys.

The Polish man had said that he had always admired the outside of this building, which looked very handsome, but that when you penetrated it it suddenly wasn’t so impressive anymore. This corridor, for example, reminded him of the interior of a ferry. Although Amir had never travelled on a ferry before, he believed that he had connected with what the Polish man had been saying. The unduly narrow corridors, the wiry carpets, the pantries with porthole-like windows inset in their doors.  The smell of surfaces that had been recently swabbed with an inappropriately strong disinfectant.   

“This is meant to be a world-famous university,” the Polish man had maintained, his voice swaying with emotion. It should be an elite building. There should be murals on the walls and classical music playing on a tannoy. He had rapped on Amir’s door and dumped a paper bag full of small, sundry foodstuffs on the carpet outside.

The suspense did not hiccup in its endlessly rolling note once Amir had reached the pantry. The lights were on but this was the only indication that any other person had been in the pantry this evening. This room looked like it had stood undisturbed since the cleaners had been on their rounds earlier in the day. No chairs had been pulled out from under its table; no water had run in its sink.

By now, every innocuous possibility had evaporated for Amir. Had the medical emergency escalated even further, on into a tier of even more stringent restrictions?

Amir sat down on the nearest chair. He shivered as he stared around the pantry and listened. He felt completely amazed. He took out his phone and checked it again but the chat had still not been updated. For a moment, he sat shivering with discomfort and embarrassment. A misery rose in him and then it fell and then it rose again even harder and more powerful.

Then he heard a tiny, almost microscopic roar.

It was an instantly recognisable sound – almost like a stock file of some audio of carousing.

It was almost as though he might have somehow heard some insects in their festivities.

Amir stood and he walked quickly over to the window. He listened carefully. Now that he was conscious of this obscure layer of sound he could not stop following its oscillations. There had been another roar and then silence as somebody was evidently speaking and then there was a burst of wide, vast laughter, like the bed at the bottom of a sea being dredged up.

They must be up on the roof. But how was this even possible? Where had the other students acquired access to the roof?

He had been up on the top floor once, simply to inspect it. Its circuit ran around on exactly the same layout as that on every other floor.

Had they all clambered out of a bedroom window and somehow hoisted themselves up? In their makeup and with their hair done up? Amir could hardly imagine this.

He continued to listen to the thin, steady sound of the carousing.

His first instinct had been a commonsensical one, to place a message on the group chat asking for information about how he could get up onto the roof. But his skin shrivelled immediately at the thought of what an error this could turn out to be. Supposing that nobody responded – the agony of this would be unbearable.

He stood listening, feeling very frail and aware of the time rolling continuously past him. If somebody had stepped into this pantry and said his name, all of the blood would have jumped out of his body.

So he fled. He turned his back on the pantry and drained back down the corridor, like some blind, dumb fluid, inexorably returning. When he reached the safety of his room, he bolted himself inside it.

He had such little idea of what to do now that he felt maddened. If he had not slept earlier, he could have curled into the foetal position and waited for unconsciousness to descend. But he could hardly spend a minute more pacing about this cubicle of a room. It was almost like being trapped, rattled, inside of a ghostly laugh.

He waited. He sat on his bed and waited, for a voice to call his name or for a notification to strike up musically on his phone and bring him back to the world.