An unknown man walks into an unnamed town. The hump-backed, downtrodden locals trace his movements as he glides forward without falter. He wears a cast iron expression of sheer determination.
Arriving at the town square, he surveys everything with a studied glance. This town has seen better days. Shuttered shop fronts and broken roads. Sweeping bitter winds whip constant torrents down on crooked rows of buckled houses; streets lined with blighted buildings, where cowed townsfolk hiss like frightened alley cats from behind cracked windows. At the centre is a looming granite war memorial, imposing itself forcefully on all those within range. Beneath the smog, a clinging, monotonous and ever-present dread seeps.
The unknown man begins work immediately by scoring an X onto the ground with chalk, then waits patiently by the memorial. Heads turn when a delivery truck arrives and building materials are unloaded. He signs for his delivery with an X. The locals stop and stare as he frantically studies a large blueprint. Soon he is hard at work, mixing cement and laying foundations, building his unknown structure. An intrigued crowd forms before him like a puddle from a leaking pipe. In the clear light of day, amongst a town full of witnesses, he slowly seals himself in brick, by brick, by brick.
Everyone swarms around, eyeing the planning permission fixed to the structure. The form is signed with an X. The locals quickly become confused and angry, scared of this new inclusion to their town. More and more contracts signed with an X surface among the townsfolk. They are outraged.
There is a contract to feed him and a contract to clean him, a security team employed to protect him and a solicitor to defend him. He has thought of every detail. Police arrive in force to break up the crowd, as a full scale riot threatens to erupt. The Man in the Wall stares through a brick-sized peep hole in his structure.
The next day, all around the square, posters are pasted to walls, banners unfurl from windows and groups of cobble-faced locals’ parade back and forth with pickets, chanting and shouting through gnarled mouths. The town is divided, those with contracts and those with none. One side hold aloft signs encouraging people to “VOTE HIM OUT”, whereas their fevered opposition signal to “VOTE HIM IN.”
News travels fast across the country.
Newspaper writers and broadcasters flood the town with snake-eyed journalists looking for the latest development. Morning talk show hosts debate the moral ambiguities. Politicians canvas upcoming campaign policies on the issue. Rolling bulletins punctuate 24-hour news channels, informing the mildly interested nation. People are talking. The Man in the Wall is famous.
The crowd turns ugly, pelting the fat Mayor with rotten produce as he scurries from the stage. Old friends collide and families divide, long-held grudges are settled and new ones created; windows are smashed and flowerbeds perverted. A full-blown riot breaks out as the people turn on each other, and on the town. The Man in the Wall watches in implacable silence as all hell breaks loose.
The media gnaws the last remaining morsels of this news cadaver; follow up stories, comment, public opinion and human interest. A distracted public avert their gaze. The dust settles and relative normality is established once more. Hands are shaken and differences are reluctantly put aside, as shame moves in next door to dread. They begin to clean up their pitiful town and repair the damage done.
The couple stare in amazement before the looming red brick structure. The Man in the Wall’s black stare glares endlessly. They pose for photographs, laughing and joking, much to the dismay of the townsfolk. Soon they look around for a place to eat but the town has nothing to offer except hateful stares and empty store fronts. They wave goodbye to the Man in the Wall, then leave.
Day by day, week by week, more people turn up to see the Man in the Wall. The crowds get bigger each time. The townsfolk can’t believe what they are seeing, as tourists flock by coach-load to catch a glimpse of the town’s own special curio. It’s not long before rusty shutters are pushed up and shops re-open their doors.
Money flows into the town like never before. There are ‘Man in the Wall’ souvenir shops and ‘Man in the Wall’ restaurants, and one enterprising gentleman builds a stall that looks like an exact replica of the famous structure. “Be the Man in the Wall for 15 minutes”, he shouts. “See what he sees and feel what he feels all for a low, low price.”
The town enjoys a brand new lease of life. The roads are fixed and the buildings painted, signs erected and trade is resurrected. Shops spring up day by day and all the locals get filthy rich. Even more amazing is the happy smiles spread across their faces. Their lives couldn’t be any better.
Nearly a year passes since the Man in the Wall first came to town and the townsfolk want to celebrate. A big festival is planned at the Town Hall by everyone; a whole week of music and culture to show the world exactly how great their little town is.
Plans are put in place and arrangements are made. An extravagant stage is set up in the town square, along with lighting and stalls. A whole manner of artists, performers, musicians and dignitaries flock into town as The ‘Man in the Wall’ festival begins in only a matter of days.
Plodding from house to house, weighted by his bulging bag of letters, the town postman is cheerfully oblivious of what he delivers to all the townsfolk. Horror repeats on each face as they unseal dread once more. Each letter simply states:
This is the Man in the Wall. I want to leave now.
The fat Mayor calls for order, banging his gavel furiously. The townsfolk are crammed tightly into the darkened Town Hall. They dip their collective voice to a low murmur. “I propose a vote. Let him out, or keep him in?” bellows the tubby little Mayor. “Let the fair hand of democracy decide.”
The townsfolk glance side to side through slithered eyes, agreeing with conspiratorial nods. “All those for the Man in the Wall leaving raise your hand and say aye,” shouts the Mayor. Not one whisper is uttered nor a single hand is raised. A young child at the back shouts out and the crowd swallow their gasps.
“Those for the Man in the Wall to remain raise your hand and say aye,” the Mayor says, his voice echoing across the deathly silence of the chambered hall. Everyone thinks exactly the same. The townsfolk raise their arms and speak in one voice.
Searchlights sear the clear, black sky as droves of people spill into the town square. The festivities are in full flow. Performance artists entertain glitter-eyed children and excitable musicians play to a rapturous crowd. Happiness is passed wilfully from palm to palm and each crisp bank note raises yet another thin, gleeful smile.
The Man in the Wall peers out of his red brick tomb.
A hired workman sets down his tool box with an ignorant thud, sizes up the structure and scratches his bald scull. Crowds move by without any recognition of his existence. The workman sprays a large red X on the front of the structure before returning to his tool box. He removes a rubber mallet and a single glass brick.
The Man in the Wall screams as the glass brick is slowly hammered into place. No one can hear him. Everyone is enjoying the festival.
Malachy O’Neill is currently studying English at MMU, reading pretentious literature and writing stories while living in constant fear about the insects that live under his skin.