The 2020 Standard Module C question gave students 40 minutes to Write about a significant place. Begin with the words: This is my world now, and it can be yours too, if you like. A place can soak through your skin like sweat, and ooze into your heart and soul. Breathe it in and let me tell you a story. This sample was written in 40 mins.
‘This is my world now, and it can be yours too, if you like. A place can soak through your skin like sweat, and ooze into your heart and soul. Breathe it in and let me tell you a story.’
The voice in the next cell stopped. I pressed my mouth and nose right into the crack between the stones and spoke. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘A time,’ the voice in the neighbouring cell said, after a short silence.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I have been here for a time. I was here. I am still here.’ I drew away from the wall. People go mad in prisons, alone. Time stops, or it runs. Prison is its own world, with its own rules of space and time. There was no point in asking again. The prisoner had been here so long that questions about time made no sense.
‘Then tell me this story,’ I said. It struck me that I couldn’t tell whether the voice in the next cell belonged to a man or a woman. Muffled, slightly distorted by the thick stone which separated us, it had a whispery quality, penetrating – but from which direction was unclear. It seeped into me like the damp on the stones. ‘Tell me,’ I said again. ‘What’s the story about?’
‘You,’ the voice whispered. ‘And this place.’
How could they know anything about me? I decided to humour them. ‘Me. And this place – to which I’ve never been before, and will hopefully be released from soon.’
The voice gave a humourless laugh. ‘How did you come to be here?’
‘Choices,’ I said. ‘We all make choices that seem good at the time and turn out not to be. Or because they’re the only option at the time – it’s that or dying. What about you?’
There was a fractional hesitation. ‘Someone told me a story about this place,’ the whisperer said. ‘I wanted to see it for myself. So I… put myself in the way of it, you could say.’
‘So someone told you a story that landed you here, and now you want to do the same to me?’ I turned around and slid down the wall, sitting on the cold stone floor. Beyond the slit window I could see glimpses of the world I had left: my family sitting on the grass, the children playing in the spring sunshine, my life before that, my step-sisters, still preoccupied with themselves, the kitchen where so many tears were shed and wishes were made.
‘Everyone hears this story sooner or later,’ the voice said. Despite my changed position and the wall’s thickness, I could still hear the voice. It occurred to me that I’d probably be able to hear it wherever I was in my cell. It’s not a small cell – I hadn’t found the limits of it yet – but the voice had a certain carrying quality. Or perhaps I was simply very attuned to it after the long silences.
‘How do you know?’ I said idly. ‘You haven’t talked to everyone.’
‘I don’t need to. Everyone ends up here.’
‘Because they heard this story or despite it?’ I was torn between humouring someone who was obviously mad, and arguing the point with them. I often found myself torn like that. I supposed it was the result of being along too much. Your cell eventually becomes your whole world.
‘When you came here, how many people did you see on the road?’
I thought back a little. I had arrived here quickly, in a coach, but I remembered passing thousands on the road, all making their own way at their own pace. People of every colour, culture, profession, outlook – all wearing a great groove on the road, which had been worn down by so much traffic that the road itself was far below the rest of the terrain, like a hollow-way. Rock walls rose up on either side of the coach. I had stuck my hand out of the window to touch the rocky sides, which narrowed around us the further we drove. By the time we drew up at the gate, we were almost surrounded by the rock into which the portal had been hacked.
‘You mean all those people – thousands of them – they’re all in cells here?’ I said incredulously. ‘There can’t be enough room for all of them.’
‘This place expands and contracts to fit,’ the voice said, with the shadow of a smile. ‘It’s hard to tell whether more arrive during hard times or better. Either way, they’re always dissatisfied with what they have, so they come pouring along the road and end up here.’
‘But you said they came because of a story,’ I said, confused. ‘How can that be if the people have come in search of something better?’
‘What’s the name of this place?’ the whisperer said. The voice was suddenly like water, creeping into the crevices of my ears. It was not in the next cell, but in this one, perhaps even inside me. I realized that I had been hearing the voice all my life, and that now things were simply quiet enough to distinguish it from the hubbub of life and action where I pursued what the voice ordered. It had led me here, and yet I had no notion of what this place was called, this prison which I had come to see as identical with life, the cage of stone where the voice still whispered ceaselessly.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Where are we?’
‘This is Happily Ever After.’