The November Room or Leaving the Labyrinth

Teika Marija Smits

Illustration by Emma Howitt

As Indra walks along the sunlit marble corridor, the smooth white stone cool beneath her bare feet, she stretches her arms wide and runs her fingertips along the walls. The corridor continues straight ahead of her for what seems like miles. Glancing upwards at the cerulean sky she sees a flock of geese, and before she can stop herself she wishes they would swoop down and lift her up and out of the labyrinth. When she is thousands of metres high, the air about her thin and cold, she will let go and fall to her death. It is the only way to truly escape the labyrinth. But as soon as this wish has formed in her mind, goose feathers begin to drift down from the sky, into the marble corridor. It should be a beautiful sight but it isn’t; she’s learnt that everything she’s ever invited into the labyrinth quickly turns strange, into something ‘other’. She begins to run.

Her breath rattles in her throat and her legs shiver with exhaustion; her heart is like an overstretched skin on a drum and her soles are raw from running on the hard, unforgiving stone. She thinks there is a door in the distance and wills herself onwards. Yes, it is a door, and it is marked June. Vaguely, she thinks that June is okay, she can cope with June. Then she remembers that the accident was in June and pauses for a moment. But when she turns to look behind her she sees the creep of goose feathers. Each one of the many that have fallen from the sky and come into contact with the marble labyrinth has been turned into stone. There are heaps of marble feathers littered across the corridor, up and up the walls, so that the way back is completely blocked. There is no going back, she must go into the June room. She takes a deep breath and opens the door.

There is neither rhyme nor reason to the rooms within the labyrinth, or so she thinks. The calendar on the wall says it is 3 June 1976. Her adult self falls into her ten-year-old body on the day that she plucked up enough courage to tell the first boy she ever liked that she wanted to kiss him. Her adult self – the self that is trapped within the labyrinth – is a voyeur to this romantic impulse, and when the boy says, yes, he would like to kiss her, she sneezes in his face and his glasses are spattered with snot. The children around them in the playground roar with laughter and she runs and runs and runs, her cheeks burning with shame, until she finds a gap in the hedge that skirts the school field and burrows her way into it. She stays there, wishing death upon herself, until the cling-clang of the bell. Her adult self wants to laugh off these feelings but she must experience them as if she were ten. She wipes away her burning tears and then returns to her schoolroom, sits at the wooden desk she has graffitied with the assertion that I.S. A.T. and tries to listen to Mrs Hall who is teaching them how to tell the time.

The next day is the day of the accident: 24 June 1991. She wakes, excited about the fact that today is the opening of her exhibition at the gallery, and hardly pays any attention to her small son and husband who are already at the kitchen table having breakfast. Her older self, trapped in her younger body, winces at how distracted she is; her heart aches as she helplessly watches this younger version ignore her son’s request to walk him to school. Her mind is a tumult of preparations for the launch – there is extra champagne to buy, her business cards to be reprinted, her dress to be picked up from the dry cleaners.

‘So what do you think?’ asks her husband.

‘Sorry, David, what did you say?’ she replies, putting down her coffee cup.

‘James wondered if you could maybe walk him to school?’

‘Well,’ she glances at her watch, takes a last sip of coffee and then addresses her son. ‘I’m kind of in a rush today, pickle. Would it be okay if you just go with Daddy? I’ve got so much to do with getting everything ready for tonight. It’s exciting isn’t it?’

James isn’t excited. In fact, he looks as though he is about to cry, and Indra suddenly worries that he will pick up his bowl and hurl it at her. But David puts his arm around his shoulders – does his particular brand of David ‘magic’ – and heads off the storm before it arrives. David says it’s okay, they don’t need Mummy today. They have a secret mission to accomplish on the way to school and she’ll only get in the way. James looks questioningly at his father, who is wearing an enigmatic expression, grins at him, and then puts his cereal bowl to his lips and slurps down the last of the sugared milk.

‘Oh James, for goodness sake, don’t do that!’ she snaps.

But her husband doesn’t scold him. ‘Waste not, want not.’

‘Anyway, I’d better get going,’ she says, standing and giving them each a hurried kiss. ‘I’ve got so much to do, and there’s so little time.’

Later, when she is sitting in her stationary Ford Sierra, the last of many of a long queue of cars all waiting for a red light to turn green, her older self braces herself for the pain to come. Her younger self glances in the rear view mirror and sees a speeding truck behind her. Stupidly, her first thought is of the crates of champagne in the boot of the car. If the truck doesn’t stop soon it’ll break all the bottles and she’ll have to buy more. She looks ahead, at the cars in front of her, at the stubbornly red light, and then again at the truck, which is accelerating. Panic takes hold of her as she realises the truck is about to plough into her car and she fumbles with the seatbelt in a desperate attempt to get out of the car. But she can’t, and before she knows it, she is whipping forwards and her head is crashing into the steering wheel. Her body sings with pain.

For the next three days she is three months old, and utterly helpless. The year is 1966 and the days are 1 June , 30 June, and 22 June. Her mother is everything to her – warmth, food, comfort – but her mother has a habit of repeatedly placing her in a cold crib and then slipping out of sight. Indra cries. A lot.

The rest of the thirty days of June are mainly uneventful ones – she is either in London, at The Slade, or at secondary school or working in her studio. There is one glorious day, when she is in her second year at The Slade, which consists of nothing but desire and the fulfilment of desire. It is one of the hottest days of the year and she and David, whom she only met the week before, spend the whole day in bed, making love, until the sheets are damp with sweat. Eventually, they leave her flat to go and find some food in Soho. Her older self, reliving this day, basks in the bliss of their romance; the fact that she has no knowledge of the terrible thing that will derange their future.

Then there is the day when she is thirteen and her father says he needs to have a little chat with her. The expression on his face is hard to read. He sort of looks sad, but also not. He tells her he won’t be living in their home any more. He’s going to live with another woman. A woman that he loves very much. But he’ll always be her daddy. And Mummy and she will never ever need to worry about money. He’ll see her as often as he can. Indra sobs, and when he tries to console her she thumps him as hard as she can with both fists and then runs to the toilet, locking herself in. He won’t be able to go until she comes out, and she’s never going to come out. But after twenty minutes or so, she hears his footsteps on the stairs, her mother flinging some last insults at him, and then the slamming of the front door. Her older self wants to comfort her childish self, but she can’t. They are shut away from each other, locked into their own silent grief.

On four wonderful days James is with her. He is young – 3, 11, 9, 6 – and mostly untroubled. There is only one somewhat challenging day in which she has to collect James’s costume for his last ever primary school performance. He is playing the Minotaur, and as everyone knows her to be the ‘arty’ mother she must get him the best. She does. A friend who excels in papier-mâché sculptures has made a bull’s head for him. It is exquisite, but James doesn’t like it and refuses to even try it on. She does her best to coax him into putting it on, but he doesn’t respond to her pleas; they only result in him going from sullen to enraged and he throws himself on the floor, wailing and thrashing his limbs about. As she attempts to get him up off the floor, he screams and kicks her.

Indra, deeply embarrassed by her son’s tantrum, clutches at the silk scarf about her neck. The scarf is as red as a bullfighter’s flag, and for a moment she longs to wrap it about James’s neck and pull it tight. Her older self cringes at the terrible impulse; she knows it is a thought that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Her younger self gives her friend, Ari, an apologetic look and tells her son that it’s okay, that he doesn’t need to try it on right now and that it’s time they went home. But he doesn’t budge.

It is only when Ari gets out a pot of bubble solution and begins to blow bubbles over his supine form that he becomes still. Fascinated, he watches the bubbles float upwards, to the ceiling.

‘Would you like to make some?’ asks Ari.

James says nothing and when Ari offers him the pot and wand, Indra is sure that he’ll whack them away, but instead, he snatches them from Ari’s hands and begins to blow bubbles; a mixture of his own snot and tears first coating the loop of the wand.

‘That’s right,’ says Ari, encouragingly. ‘Now you’re just like your mother. Only you’re a sculptor of air.’

James doesn’t say anything, but he is calmer now, and Indra is thankful for Ari’s understanding, her patient handling of the situation.

After a while, Indra manages to coax James off the floor, and they leave, with him clutching the pot of bubbles and her the bull’s head. Her younger self is exasperated, angry; full of self-pity. Why does he always ruin things that should be joyful? Her older self simply wants to hold James one more time.

The last day in the June room is the 16 June 2005, the day when David said in a gentle voice that maybe it would be best if they went their separate ways. Her five-month younger self doesn’t argue and watches him walk to the front door with a rucksack full of clothes and his portfolio full of charcoal sketches of their son.

He opens the door but then pauses on the threshold, turns to her and says, ‘But if you need me and ever want to talk… well, I’m here for you. Okay?’

She nods, willing herself not to cry. She wants to say something, anything, but when he speaks, says that considering what they’ve gone through it’s understandable that they’ve drifted apart, she closes the door on him. As it slams shut, tears waterfall from her eyes.

She steps out of the June room still crying and sits with her back to one of the marble walls of the labyrinth, hugging her knees to her chest. As soon as her tears hit the floor they turn into smooth chips of marble. Looking at the door she has just now come through, she sees that it is already turning into stone. That part of the labyrinth is now closed off to her, reinforcing the fact that there is no way back or out; she is being shunted ever onwards. Endlessly trapped. She picks up the marble chips and screams as she hurls them at the opposite wall. They clatter to the ground and one splits in two as it hits the floor. It gives her an idea. She scrabbles around for the broken pieces and finds the two halves of the teardrop. One of them has a particularly rough, sharp edge, and before she can think her way out of the action she uses it to try to cut the artery in her neck. Desperately, she jabs, jabs, jabs at her throat, but her neck, though bruised, is otherwise unharmed.

She wonders how many rooms are ahead of her still, before the year is up. Running through the months in her head, she marks each one of them by slicing the skin on her upper arm with the sharp marble chip. Beads of blood form at each incision, and though each cut is shallow, she is pleased with her handiwork; it is then that she fully realises she’s been in eleven rooms already and none of them was the month of November. It’s the one room she can’t face, and she sobs, sorrow welling out of her, and she longs to cry a river – an ocean – and to drown in her own tears. As soon as she has thought this, the marble floor begins to undulate, roll, crest. It is bubbling up like water from a spring, and rippling and breaking against her feet. With a pounding heart she realises what she’s done: she’s summoned a river of marble to come drown her. But though a part of her would like to remain here and be suffocated in stone, another part recoils from the roiling river, from the waves that are already as tall as the walls of the corridor. She runs.

She follows the labyrinth, turning left, then right, then left and left again until she meets with a door. It is the November room. The room she doesn’t want to enter. But she can hear the rushing of the marble river behind her and there is nowhere to go. As the water flows towards her, trickles of living stone brushing against her feet, a great wave rises up in the river and she panics. It is going to engulf her and she will be crushed, drowned, suffocated. Turned to stone. She tells herself that she doesn’t care, that she deserves this death, but an instinct to survive – to live at all costs – betrays her, and she reaches for the handle of the door and tumbles into the November room.

Of course, the first day she falls into is the 5 November 2002, the one day she has never wanted to relive. Most of the day is spent in the studio, using a rasp to refine the sculpture she is working on. When the air is full of marble dust and her arms are spent with fatigue, her assistant helps her out of the climbing harness. Attached to the criss-cross of wires and pulleys up in the rafters, the harness enables Indra to get up close to the tall block of marble she is sculpting. Unclicking the various clips and safety harnesses, her assistant helps Indra into her wheelchair and brings her a cup of coffee. She then tells her about the phone calls she’s dealt with while Indra was working. They are numerous and important – involving commissions, requests for interviews, a television appearance; an update on a purchase of a spectacularly large slab of marble she made some weeks ago. When her assistant hands her the local newspaper and shows her an article about one of her obscene sculptures that was bought for a huge sum, she tries to laugh off the mean little write-up, but the word lodges in her mind, her heart, and she tells her assistant that she’s had enough for the day, would she please take her home?

Later, drinking gin and tonic in her study and still thinking about that rotten article, her thoughts occasionally interrupted by the noise of fireworks, she hears James at the front door. She calls to him and after a few moments he opens the study door, immediately asking her where Dad is.

‘Probably stuck in traffic on the M25. Don’t you remember? He was giving a lecture in Cambridge today.’

James sighs and then turns to go.

‘Wait up. How was college? Any better?’

He shrugs, as sullen as ever; yet through the eye holes of his don’t give a fuck mask she thinks she sees some genuine emotion. It is anger, though it quickly disappears, folding in on itself, crumpling. Her younger self is proud of the way James deals with his anger nowadays, though a small voice insists that she’s kidding herself. Anger folded inwards hasn’t gone, it’s still there but more concentrated. Denser. She ignores the voice, and her older self sobs. Longs for release.

There is the sound of another firework, fwoosh-bang!

‘Bloody rockets,’ she says. ‘Can’t stand them.’

James seems to think this comment the conclusion of their conversation and goes upstairs. The small voice prods her to call to him as he does so. ‘Only two days to the big birthday, eh? And what about Amy? Can she make it?’

He slams his door just as another rocket goes off, and it seems to Indra as though the whole house shudders violently.

For the Indra trapped in the labyrinth, in the November room, and in the body of her younger self on 5 November 2002, the next hour is pure torture. She tries shouting at her younger self, hitting, kicking biting – anything – that will get her to go up to James. But she is powerless to exert any influence on her younger self who continues to brood over the article and the way in which the reporter shoved in a comment by an oft-quoted critic who calls her work Damer meets Duchamp. It’s a lazy comparison. Yes, she works in a traditional manner, but a toilet only featured once in her sculptures. Still, she’s famous for the piece – ‘Sex on Loo’ – and she knows she mustn’t begrudge the fame (or is that infamy?) it’s brought her. The older her screams herself hoarse in trying to intrude on her younger version’s egocentric reflections. But it’s only when three years younger Indra hears a thump from James’s room above that she wheels into the hallway and calls up to him. Silence. She goes to the stairlift and hauls herself out of her wheelchair and into the seat. As she slowly rises up the stairs, anger claws at her throat. Why does he never reply? He knows she can’t just walk up the stairs like other people. When she gets to the top she lifts herself out of the seat and into the wheelchair waiting on the landing. She’s going to have to lay down the law; she can’t be doing with this shouting-from-downstairs-only-to-be-ignored nonsense.

But when she tries opening the door to his room and finds it jammed, she is consumed by fear. She shouts for him, shoves the handle down as hard as she can. She uses her fists to try bashing down the door, but it’s no good. She needs something heavy. So Indra goes to a spare bedroom which she knows is crammed full of her early works and picks up a marble bust. On returning to his room she lobs it at the door and it smashes right through, showing her the chair that was propped up beneath the door handle. She clears the obstacles and wheels herself into the room and the moment that will change her life forever. The scene is too awful for her to comprehend; she can only take in small snatches of it, and so it morphs into the unreality of a cubist painting: James’s neck at an absurd angle, his dangling body, the shoelaces of his trainers skimming over the carpet, the brown leather belt attaching his soft throat to the ceiling light forever forever forever.

Her older self could never remember exactly what happened in the moments after her son’s suicide, but now she gets to watch her younger self – hysterical, physically useless – in the aftermath: feeling for a pulse; trying (and failing) to get James down; going downstairs to the phone while cursing the uselessness of her legs, the torturously slow stairlift; phoning for an ambulance; phoning David who doesn’t immediately reply. Just before the ambulance gets to the house he answers the phone and says, ‘Sorry, I was doing 70 when you called earlier but now the whole bloody motorway’s jammed.’

It is only now, three years later, when she is stuck in the November room of the labyrinth, that she considers what David must’ve gone through in the two hours it took him to get home to his dead son. She cries until she can’t breathe and wishes for it to turn midnight.

When it does, she is plunged into a day that she knows has to be infinitely better; and though it is not – for it is the day when her alcoholic mother tells her that she’s been diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and doesn’t have long to live – she at least gets to hold her mother, tell her that she loves her, that she’ll be there for her.

The next day is the launch of David’s exhibition – his last ever before James’s suicide – and though teenage James is clearly not comfortable about the fact that he is his father’s muse, there is a small flicker of pride in his smile as he greets his friends in the gallery and they point to a large canvas that bears his face. As Indra goes about the gallery she overhears two women who are, ostensibly, considering a painting of a flock of white geese entitled ‘The Imprisoned Brothers’, but actually gossiping about David. How he’s a real dish. And how it must be so annoying for him to have his wife’s awful work lauded when his is so much better… prettier…

She laughs soundlessly at their remarks – David is the least egotistic artist she knows. His mastery in oils is unparalleled, though his paintings don’t tend to draw the attention of the critics because of his choice of subject matter. Its lack of controversy. He’s inspired by fairy tales, mythology, and often takes elements of these timeless tales and places them in a contemporary setting. His art sells, too. There are plenty of people who will pay good money to have one of David’s paintings in their homes. Or the next best thing: a print. It makes her smile to think of the number of homes that have on their walls one of his most popular works, ‘Icarus Dreams’ (the title came from a poem written by a writer-friend) which took months to paint, what with James grumbling about the huge, white wings his father made him wear for short periods of time.

And as to him being a dish, well, of course, that’s true. But David is her dish, so the women can fuck off. Still, she’s thankful to them for showing her David in a new light. She looks across at her husband of eighteen years, champagne glass in hand, and considers his still-handsome features, his thick, black hair which is just beginning to be threaded with grey, and almost bursts with a fierce kind of pride. He sees her and raises his glass in acknowledgment. She raises her glass too and grins.

The next day is 8 November 1984, the day she gave birth to James. She wakes at 4 a.m. suddenly overwhelmed by pain and fear, and the day rushes onwards in a blur of midwives, doctors and downright barbaric procedures which leave James with a crushed head and her with a mutilated vagina. But when James is finally placed on her chest, before is suddenly no longer relevant. Later, she thinks, she will give her experience a shape, a form in marble, but for now there is only James’s warm wriggly body, and the incredible food that is toast. Close to midnight, she falls asleep, exhausted but happy. Her older self is grateful for each exquisitely painful moment of the day.

The next fifteen days are all intense: she is either caring for a howling newborn or grieving for her grown-up son. Indra is sure that the way the labyrinth interchanges these two radically different kinds of day will break her; though they do show her something important which she failed to see at the time: David’s devotion to both her and James. He is always there for her in the baby days, offering to help change nappies, cooking food or making her cups of tea. When she is grieving he brings her yet more tea, cooks, deals with the paperwork. Offers her a listening ear. But she is ridiculously stubborn and refuses his help. Turns in on herself. She must do this alone.

Just when she thinks she cannot take a single more day of being in the November Room, it brings her a beautiful day. She is in the Caribbean, with David. It is the day of her father’s wedding to the bitch, as her mother always called Sonia. Indra and David are recently married themselves and David has hinted that maybe next year would be a good time for them to become parents. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day, and though Indra’s never particularly liked Sonia – how could she when her mother blames her for driving her to drink? – she can see that she makes her father happy. The wedding ceremony is unexpectedly sweet, and she and David drink far too much champagne and make fools of themselves on the dance floor but don’t care. They end the day by strolling along a moonlit beach while David sings ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ to her. He doesn’t know most of the lyrics, so he makes up his own. She laughs with each stupid line. Eventually, they fall into each other’s arms and make love in the sand.

The next two days she is back in the studio in London, a year after James’ death, two years after, urging herself to create; to make something out of his suicide; to give him a solid form. But nothing other than his lifeless body comes to her mind’s eye, and she refuses to capture him in marble in this way. She doesn’t make any sketches, or a preliminary figure in clay, or pick up her hammer or chisel. Instead, she drinks glass after glass of gin and tonic.

The penultimate day of the month she spends in the November Room is a good day. She is young, seventeen, and wildly in love with art. She is visiting the studio of a well-known sculptor with her father, who has arranged the meeting, and after the sculptor has talked about his process, and shown her a little of how he uses traditional tools to gouge into a block of marble to extract the form within, she is itching to have a go herself. As he places a hammer and chisel in her hands she has a sense that this is a significant moment, and as she begins to chip away at the stone she experiences a deep contentment – a rightness – within herself. This is what she will do with her life.

The last day of November is, of course, the day of James’s funeral. She wouldn’t have expected anything less from the cruel labyrinth. It is raining and she is wearing black, David is wearing black, everyone is wearing black and carrying a black umbrella, and they come to her with their sorrow, their mute faces, the women’s mascara running, unable (or unwilling) to even try to express the inexpressible. For what is there to say? Nothing. Yet, slowly, a pointillist picture of the why behind James’ suicide emerges. Dots of deep depression, violent mood swings, his recent break-up with Amy, his bad grades at art school which he told no one about, his assertion that he just couldn’t do art, unlike his famous parents, dabbling in drugs, the pages and pages of stream-of-consciousness writing in which he kept asserting that he was a loser, a weirdo, that his mind was a maze in which he was trapped, that everyone would be better off without him; they all come together to build a sort-of narrative that she can just about make sense of. But the grief, and guilt, well, there’s no making sense of that. As she looks upon the sea of umbrellas stretching before her, Indra locks herself away into a room of her own making.

Indra falls out of the November Room sobbing. Turning to look at the door behind her, she sees that it is turning into stone. Why isn’t she home?

‘That was the last fucking month!’ she screams into the marble corridor. ‘What more do you want from me? There’s only twelve fucking months in a year!’

She stops then, her mind reeling. Why should there be only twelve rooms in the labyrinth? It doesn’t give her the months, or the days of the months, in any kind of chronological order, so why on earth did she think she only had twelve months to get through and then she’d be home? Stupid, stupid woman! She could be here for the rest of her life, running through her out-of-sequence past until her mind, itself, shatters like stone beneath a chisel.

‘All right then,’ she shouts, suddenly defiant. ‘Bring it on! A minotaur, rain, umbrellas, I’ll take the fucking lot!’

And sure enough, a small boy wearing a bull’s head of papier-mâché suddenly runs past her, pelting down the corridor ahead of her as fast as he can. In one hand he is carrying a small yellow plastic bottle, in the other a bubble wand. A trail of soapy bubbles stream after his fleeing form; the rainbow-shimmered spheres float upwards.

After a moment of disbelief, which keeps her frozen to the spot, she cries, ‘James!’ and runs after him.

But rain is now falling from the thunderous sky and into the labyrinth, where it morphs into droplets of marble which hammer into her head, her shoulders, her bare arms and feet and shins and calves, making her wince with pain; slowing her down.

She thinks that she could, indeed, do with an umbrella right now, and as she looks up into the grief-coloured sky, a black umbrella floats down to her, and then another and another – as though she is on the set of Mary Poppins. Indra catches hold of one, and though it turns to white marble on her touch, it is curiously light; more bone than stone.

She runs on, desperate to get to James, yet fearful that the strong and capable legs the labyrinth has given her will let her down; become too tired to continue the chase. When she sees a turn in the corridor ahead, she thinks he will disappear down it. But he doesn’t. He stops running and then stands there, waiting.

Indra runs up to him and, breathless, drops the umbrella. She falls to her knees by his feet, oblivious to the fact that it’s no longer raining.

‘James,’ she asks, her voice breaking, ‘is it you? Really you?’

He doesn’t say anything, but the outsized bull’s head wobbles a little, giving her a small nod.

She clutches him to her, sobbing. ‘Are you all right? Oh God, how I miss you! I’m so sorry,’ she says, ‘for everything. I want you back. We all do. Can you come home?’

Indra feels him squirming, trying to extricate himself from her embrace. She doesn’t want to let go of her son, but eventually she loosens her grip and he steps away from her. He seems to shake his head.

‘But are you okay? Please, just let me know you’re okay. We’re not, I mean your dad and I. But how can we be, when you’re no longer with us?’

He hands her the pot of bubble solution and the small looped wand, and she takes them from him wordlessly, confused as to why he is doing this. James then points to something behind her in the corridor.

Indra turns to see a great line of marble umbrellas behind her. But why is he pointing to them?

When she turns back to him he has gone, though the sound of his footsteps tell her that he’s disappeared down the turn. Replacing the wand in the pot of bubble solution, she gets up and runs after him, left, right, straight, on and on, right, right, straight, left. But it’s no good, he’s going unnaturally fast, and she can’t keep up with him. She collapses in a heap, and gazes upwards at the sky which is slowly turning from one of her favourite shades of watercolour – Payne’s grey – to lavender blue. Bubbles, presumably from earlier, are floating up into the fast-changing sky.

Still holding the pot of bubbles, she hugs herself tight, encouraging herself to go on. She must follow her son, and she will follow her son, until the very end, until her feet are bloodied stumps and her heart is too weak to go on beating.

Slowly, Indra stands and then limps along the corridor in the direction that James has gone. But soon she hears the patter of footsteps behind her – from the way she has just now come. Confused, she turns around and back-tracks and, yes, there he is, though she cannot understand his seemingly slipping past her without her noticing. He leads her all the way back to the corridor full of umbrellas.

‘Why are we here again?’ she asks, going to him.

But he skips away from her, and then points at the umbrellas. The moment she glances at where he’s pointing, he vanishes.

‘Don’t go!’ she cries, looking about her. Unsure where to go or what to do, she simply stands there, utterly lost. He doesn’t want her. Her son doesn’t want to be with her.

She slumps onto the floor, heavy with this awful knowledge, and cries, her arms about her shuddering chest, until she can cry no longer; until she reaches a tremulous and terrible dry-eyed calm.

She looks back to the umbrellas. There are soap bubbles in the sky above the corridor full of white marble umbrellas, and for a moment they shape themselves into a door.

Indra gasps, understanding coming to her now. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her… he was trying to help her.

‘Of course!’ she mutters, and she stands and smiles. How ridiculous to only think in two dimensions! She consciously thinks of umbrellas and, instantly, more come floating down from the sky and into the corridor. But in her mind she arranges them in an overlapping manner, so that they become a stairway going upwards, to the door she can see in the bubbles. It is slowly becoming more substantial now – a free-floating door of wood and white gloss paint, just like the door to James’s bedroom. The umbrellas have formed a graceful, curved stairway into the sky, and she scrambles up it, way past the tops of the walls of the labyrinth. She climbs and climbs until she is only a short way from the door. But it’s just out of reach, and no more umbrellas are floating downwards, despite her best efforts to will them into existence. Frustration threatens to overwhelm her. She is so close!

A honking sound breaks into her thoughts and she realises that the geese are back. The beautiful white geese who will help her up so she can reach the door. And they do. Taking hold of her cotton dress with their orange beaks, their great, powerful wings beating about her, they lift her to the door.

‘Thank you!’ she cries as she grabs the handle, falling through the open door and onto solid ground. Ground that is carpeted, with wooden floorboards underneath. The door shuts behind her and she knows that she has finally escaped the labyrinth. She clutches at the thick pile of the ivory-coloured carpet outside James’s room, tears seeping from her eyes, and laughs hysterically at the fact that she’s never been happier to see a piece of carpet. She is out. Out!


It is David, and he is rushing up the stairs to her. ‘Oh God, what’s happened? I was so worried when you didn’t answer my calls. Are you all right? How did you get up here? I thought the stairlift was broken? And there’s no wheelchair up here!’

He sits beside her and takes her into his arms; it is then that he notices the dozens and dozens of white pills scattered about the carpet; one has been split into two, and Indra is clutching one of the halves. In her other hand is a plastic pot with a label that reads Bubbles. Her neck is bruised and there are scratches on her upper arm which are still oozing blood.

‘Oh God, oh God,’ he mutters. ‘Please tell me you’re okay, that you haven’t taken any tablets, please Indra.’

‘I’m okay,’ she manages to say. ‘I’m okay. James saved me. So did you. And I’m out now. I got out.’

David doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about, but when she tells him that she’s sorry, that she’s sorry for everything, he holds her even tighter, and they both cry tears that have the power to bind them together in something other than guilt and grief.

It is then that Indra sees in her mind’s eye the white marble sculpture she will make. It will be huge, the largest sculpture she’s ever created; it will be of a curving stairway made of overlapping umbrellas, a door supported by flying geese at the top; tucked in a shadowed corner beneath the stairway will be a small boy wearing a bull’s head. He will be holding a small bottle and a bubble wand. Thin glass bubbles, their curved surfaces like those of puddles sheened with rainbow-swirled petrol will float about the sculpture. They will hang in the air, unsupported. She has no idea how she’s going to make them do that, but as she grips the plastic bottle she knows she can do it. She can do anything now.

Indra will call the sculpture, ‘The November Room’ or ‘Leaving the Labyrinth’. Maybe both. ∎

Teika Marija Smits is a UK-based writer and freelance editor. She writes poetry and fiction, and her speculative short stories have been published in Parsec, Shoreline of Infinity, Best of British Science Fiction and Great British Horror 6. Her debut short story collection, Umbilical, is due to be published by NewCon Press in August 2023. Teika is also editing an anthology inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We for Luna Press Publishing. In her spare moments she likes to doodle, draw, and paint. ‘The November Room or Leaving the Labyrinth’ is her Interzone debut. Find her at and on Twitter @MarijaSmits.

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