It’s Friday night and there is unusual activity at the British Museum. The art students manning the events at the Egyptian antiquities are dressed in black, their eyes heavily lined in long geometrical shapes of grey and black kohl. A girl tosses a golden coin as big as her palm and it falls revealing the ominous drawing of a spiral. She gives me a black card that reads: Admit One – Room Four, Living And Dying. Roll up, Roll up! Welcome to the Afterlife! and shows me to a table behind her, squeezed between the stark, gigantic statue of an animal and a stone sarcophagus as tall as myself. The boy sitting at the table informs me that the lot I drew leads to the Bad Underworld. Makes sense, I say before I can stop myself, and he laughs. He gives me a paper where I am asked to draw my offerings for the journey, and shows the way. A silent girl indicates that I should take off my shoes and backpack. She helps me into a loose sand-colored robe and ties a powder-blue ribbon around my waist. She leads me up the steps and to a small sheltered area behind the large stone sarcophagus, where there is another sarcophagus waiting for me, smaller, coffin-shaped, made out of light wood and white fabric. Beside it stand upright two thin young men, their eyes painted into a thick strip of black cutting across their faces. They don’t speak. They help me into the makeshift box, which is lined with a purple velvety mattress. I lie down and they cover the box with black cloth. It’s comfortable, and not wholly dark. Bits of soft light steal through the white cotton covering the sides and I can barely discern through the black cloth, very far up on the improbably high museum ceiling, some small spotlights gleaming shyly like stars. I feel at ease. I knit my fingers across my chest and half close my eyelids. It’s not too bad, I consider. The black cover is relaxing. The din which surrounded me before is now stifled to a remote whisper. How much different could actual death be? Only more darkness, more quiet. I wonder how long I’m going to lie here. Time passes. My thought begins to unfurl, widening and diluting. Closing my eyes I sense the void surrounding me, infinite. Opening them I am back on my gentle boat towards the Underworld. And the Unknown passes me by, unseen.
When you share a dorm with twenty-seven strangers of any age or sex and your personal space is marked by a narrow bunk bed with a pair of flimsy curtains, everything depends on trust and respect. You leave some of your things in places where it’s impossible to constantly keep an eye on them. You frantically take off your jeans with the curtains drawn shut as you listen to others doing the same, identical sounds of hissing fabric and zippers. You wake up in the middle of the night because somebody close to you is trying to undress or pack their luggage blindly, you’re dying with curiosity to open the curtains and watch them, you don’t have the immediate sense of restraint and calm yourself down with your imagination, deciphering every sound. Darkness, echoing snoring, and someone across the corridor has turned on their little lamp like a spotlight, perhaps they don’t realize it but now their every movement is perfectly visible on the thin curtain like shadow puppetry: they bend, they undress, they lift their arms, they undress, they pant, they’re cold, they lift their arms, they lift their legs, they dress, they bend, they sigh, they dress. You realize that this is how you would probably look and always take your clothes off in the darkness with your lamp carefully switched off, anonymously, and once perhaps out of pure vanity and thrill you turn the lamp back on and perform your own little number. You lie down, everyone is in bed, many are awake and stare at the ceiling, those who sleep are breathing in unison like a herd of animals. The strange creature occupying the upper bunk is wriggling, you count down the seconds and hit exactly the moment when they turn off their light. Inevitably you consider sex in this abstractly cubicled world, and you can almost hear the rest of them thinking about the same thing. Everyone is very polite: they don’t touch themselves, and if they do they go about it noiselessly and never to completion. The mixture of smells grows thick and heavy but you’re used to it by now. You’re not certain if you like this place and it’s a strange feeling. There isn’t any of the familiar soothing of good company. After all, you can only ever know about these things when you’re alone.
Clio Velentza lives in Athens, Greece, loves notebooks and probably reads too much. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals. Find her at @clio_v.