Incidents in a Mall
# 52 Chalkmarks
There are chalk marks on the grey walls; they stretch on and on, down through featureless passages cut off from natural light; scoring the many floors which mirror each other only in anonymity.
Here, behind the scenes, there are almost two kilometres of service corridors. They connect the rear entrances of every retail outlet via elevator and stair to the subterranean service entrance where the tons of daily goods arrive in vast trucks that appear mostly in the dark of night. None of the light or sound from the mall enters these corridors, it is like walking through an old black and white photograph. Walls, floor and roof are grey concrete, the neon lights illuminate sewage pipes and electrical wires which give the corridors their only colour; save for the chalk marks, in shades of pastel peach and blue, weathering to white on the walls. These are not drawings: there are no scrawled images of faces or genitals, no words, dates, names or jokes. They are not graffiti as was first thought, but simple lines, stretching hundreds of yards; it took time till the reason for their existence was revealed.
Unlike the mall proper where the brand names are spot-lit and bright, here in the dark, the rear doors of the stores can be located only by tiny generic numbers that it might take a torch to read; there are no logos. For security reasons, the stores do not advertise their names; perhaps they do not trust the delivery men who service their competitors. The only way then to locate the rear door for Gap, or H&M or Starbucks is to follow the numbers till you find the one that corresponds, on some list, to their name.
You rarely meet another human in this place, and if you do, you would not stop and talk. Some hold their breath, most try to retrace their way to the exit as soon as they have deposited their crates and boxes of shirts, coffee, shoes, bras, party hats.
As the corridors have no windows or features, there is now way, unless you were to bring a compass, that you could orientate. The only thing for certain in the labyrinth is that the smell rises from the sub-basement. It lingers on the clothes of those sometimes met in the service elevators, whose job it is to deal with the twelve daily tons of waste and recycling. The smell has been compared to soured milk, burned meat, dust, fish, cat piss, house fire and candyfloss.
The mall designers must only have thought of the bright-lit stores and not of how they would be served, or maybe something must remain dark and secret about the stocking of storerooms. Many delivery workers get lost, and perhaps this happens because they drive to and serve many malls each week, and all are variations of the same grey edifice. Tales are told of voices heard screaming, of men kicking walls, of a Gap man found asleep in a dead-end. There is no signal for mobile phones in the lower two floors. Some joke of what would happen if you had a heart attack; how long it would take for them to find you. The CCTV is sparse, one camera at each of the four corners, so the majority of corridor space is blind.
There is a story of two mall cleaners, who, for a joke, camped out, beneath a lower stairwell, building a home of packing boxes. They slept there for one night, then two; after four days they had still gone unnoticed and their joke turned cold.
Sounds can sometimes be heard from inside the locked storerooms: one was of a child repeating the same word over and over, hour after hour – Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. Another, was a drum beating. Toys in the storeroom of the Early Learning Centre sometimes fall from shelves and turn themselves on. Senior staff play pranks on juniors; they send them on pointless errands; they tell them that the place is haunted and creep up on them in the dark. They joke about this only outside at the service entrance, as they gulp in huge breaths of sunlight and cigarette smoke.
There is one floor, beneath the sub-basement, which is out-of-bounds; it is something to do with security and emergency, they say, but will say no more. Perhaps it is a lie concocted to scare. The empty floor beneath all floors, as long and wide as the whole mall above, but with no shop or sign or window, all dark, in dust.
Many fear getting lost and so the chalk marks are, it is said, the ingenious solution to this problem. Each line like a ball of twine in a maze. No one knows who first came up with the idea, or how it spread. Perhaps one person followed the first line and found it led to a delivery point, then went home and got his or her own chalk to, next time, mark the journey to their required door, so as to save time. Other lines then followed in different colours, some in staccato or dots to distinguish themselves from others. Many paths joining, then separating to different destinations.
Some may have bought chalk for this purpose, others maybe used what was at hand. The yellow and pink could only have come from a children’s blackboard. The blue chalk, perhaps, for a snooker cue or from a long forgotten art box.
The miles of service corridors are now covered with so many chalk lines that they blend with each other, erasing their original purpose. Some say they look like cave paintings, but they are a strange art, devoid of images; mere lines that map the lives of those who drew them. The mall owners insisted that the lines be cleaned off, but the cleaners eventually gave up. The lines they were too numerous and wound their way round the entire structure. They were scored in too deeply.
The lines have already lasted twenty years, outlived the millions of advertising images that have flashed by in the brightly-lit mall beyond. The lines, no doubt, will remain etched on the walls till the mall itself reaches the end of its life.
And one day amidst the rubble of the ruins, in daylight and dust, someone might see those chalk lines and wonder who drew them and what they were once supposed to mean.
Images by Ewan Morrison, fiction featured in Edinburgh Review 133: Dark Things as Bright.