THE BRIGHT AND THE BLEAK
Sarah Hartwell, (March 2010)
Imagine a seaside town in England, past its glory days, but still bright with lights and entertainments. There are the tacky sea-front shops selling inflatable rings and glow-sticks alongside rock and candyfloss. Jingles and noise spills from slightly tatty amusement arcades where the games machines reflect past years' hits, not this year's blockbusters. Trams festooned with coloured bulbs, flashing in patterns, trundle along the wide streets, linking hotels and casinos, pier and promenade. Despite its outdated attractions, tourists throng from midmorning to midnight.
Somewhere here there is a portal, pre-dating the glitz and glamour, even pre-dating the sleepy fish and crabbing village that stood here before the amusements arrived. And we are here to find it. Back a way from the bright, noisy promenade, back where the school and fire station stand and where the Victoria era buildings have been converted into B-and-Bs for benefit claimants, back among the blockish grey concrete "modern hotels" there is a door to elsewhere.
He and I find the building as described, several streets back. It's a 1960s building - a school or college, one of those institutional buildings of corridors and rooms and double doors (some glazed, some solid) to be kept shut to prevent spread of fire. One of those sets of fire doors is the portal. The place is disused of course, apart from a caretaker who carefully avoids one particular corridor. There are rumours of people missing here and it's too unsettling so only urban explorers dare come here and some return changed.
We find the doors in the dustiest corridor (of course, because the caretaker avoids this bit). There are footprints in the grime in both directions. The doors resist at first, but as we push the the right hand door open, the left opens towards us. Action and reaction. As we pass from the bright world, the other "we" pass into our world. They look careworn and pallid, a bleaker reflection of ourselves.
The other side is the twin of ours, but somehow bleaker and lacking hope or spirit. the seaside amusements are dull and tawdry. Paint flakes and broken bulbs haven't been replaced. It's darker than we anticipated as the lights are fewer. It's colder too as a chill breeze comes up off of the sea, but much of the chill is due to a sense of depression. Only one motel is open, though the manager is brusque. he knows we don't belong on the bleak side. The room he gives us is sparsely furnished.
On the seafront, the trams look dingy with their missing bulbs. Litter hasn't been picked up and instead of late night tourists there are bored teens swigging white cider as though to blot out the hopelessness of their surroundings. This place is a dead end where people wash up, not a destination.
We planned to stay one night and explore, but it's been days now. Our barely civil hotel manager has explained why. For everyone who comes through, their analogues must go into the bright. Once there, they want to stay - who wouldn't? We can push those doors as much as we want, but unless the bleak "we" want to come back, we cannot open them. We are they, they are we, just different sides of a mirror. What would we do if we'd escaped into the bright? We'd put as much distance as possible so we couldn't be pulled back through.