“Are you ready, Ben?”
The young man’s hands nervously pad the thick wetsuit that covers every inch of his body. The heart rate monitor flickers rapidly as an expression of his excitement, and of his anxiety. This is a fantasy that has been on his mind for most of his life, but even so, that doesn’t mean it isn’t scaring him to let it play out. He nods in response, the snorkel glued to the wetsuit makes any attempts to speak unintelligible.
Ben still remembers so well how, when he was six, while playing on a muddy riverbank, he had sunk almost to the top of his thighs in the soft clay. He’d panicked as his legs were trapped firmly in the unyielding mud, immoveable in the sucking sludge. After half an hour, his father had found him and the fire brigade finally got him out several hours later, but for weeks afterwards he’d had nightmares of getting sucked down and down until his entire body was trapped so securely that he was unable to move a finger. The fear had never left him, even if a sense of desire and arousal had got mixed in with the fantasy when he went through puberty.
Granville Ainsworth steadies his ‘objet d’art’ as the youngster steps into the wooden crate and lies down on the cross bars. He can feel the kid’s excitement, even if nothing is visible of his face underneath the hood and goggles. A few months ago, during a random, somewhat-drunk conversation at a party of a mutual acquaintance, Ben had confessed his fantasy of being trapped from head to toe in solid mud and thereby had set this train in action. It had rekindled a long-dead creative flame in Granville, the idea for a genuinely novel exhibit rather than the tired rehash of previous works that had dominated the last ten years of his artistic career.
“A week, Ben, before we will see each other again.”
The artist fixes the snorkel so that it sits perfectly vertical on the centerline of the crate. He connects the catheter to the valve in the bottom.
“I’ll personally change the bottle of food every day, and the heart-rate and brainwave monitors are connected and working well, so we can keep an eye on you. Otherwise, though, you will be entirely on your own until I release you.”
Granville carefully tips the cement mixer and a stream of high-grade ultra-fine concrete begins to fill the bottom of the crate underneath his model’s body.
“Good luck, Ben. See you in a week’s time.”
The first contact with the cement is a dull sensation against his backside, his shoulder blades, the backs of his legs. The wetsuit, there to protect his skin from the caustic chemicals and to provide a little padding once the concrete has set hard, blunts the feeling of the thick mud-like sludge that creeps up his sides, over his legs, over his belly. Mud-like sludge covering him, just like it had done all those years ago, except that it won’t stop at his legs this time. It takes his utmost discipline to stay flat on his back as the concrete flows thick over his face, covering his mouth and nose, covering the goggles and cutting off what little Ben has been able to see. “Lie back,” he tells himself, “breathe slowly, let the cement set around you and you’ll be able to live your fantasy for the next week.” He needs to get it out of his system, that fantasy: half dream – half nightmare. A self-destructive desire to experience his greatest fear.
The crate is filled to the top and a few deft swipes of a trowel smoothen it to a perfectly flat surface. As long as the youngster stays still for the next 10 minutes or so, the block should be perfect. Granville checks the monitors, the heart-rate is still fast at 120-odd a minute, but that is to be expected. The brainwaves look pretty normal, but that monitor is really only for show, because the artist doesn’t know enough about brain waves to recognize if there is a problem. What feelings do they betray, these peaks and spikes? Apprehension? Elation? Doubt? Almost certainly all of them and probably many others.
The panic is slow-building, continually present underneath the surface, suppressed but growing irresistibly. Ben forces himself to lie completely still, controlling his breathing, clearing his mind, or at least trying to clear it. Time passes. His heart races, thumping in his chest. With every minute the concrete will get harder, all around him, tightly holding his body. Soon he will be contained in the cement, unable to escape, unable to move a finger. A week. A full week completely immobilized. His rapid breathing is whistling audibly through the snorkel now. His chest hurts with the heavy fast drumming of his heart. There is still time to escape, but it will have to be now, immediately! Finally, the suppressed panic bursts the banks of his mind and the nineteen-year-old snaps up into a sitting position. Well... tries to snap up into a sitting position, but however much he strains his muscles, there is no movement. The panic flows unrestrained now, his heart beats so hard it might rupture. Ben fights the rock-hard constraint of the set concrete, but it is futile. Several minutes of blind terror, a desire to thrash and struggle that is powerless against the skintight stone surrounding him.
Granville watches the monitor as it suddenly spikes to 200 beats a minute. The boy must have realized he is stuck. He runs his hand along the surface of the block, hard indeed. He’ll give it another ten minutes or so before disassembling the crate. Then a light polish of the concrete to remove blemishes and tomorrow when it is fully dry, he’ll start painting an image of Ben on the top and sides of the concrete block: nude and relaxed lying on his back, with a depiction of the snorkel lining up with the real thing. If it works out as he intended, it will be as if the spectator can see the boy inside his prison.
The heart-rate slowly starts coming down.
The acute terror in his heart has burned itself out. His muscles ache with the effort to break free, his body feels bruised from the relentless contact with the cement. As the panic lifts, Ben’s mind clears. Fighting is no use; he’d known that from the start, but hadn’t been able to stop himself. The block is too hard, the concrete too thick for him to free himself. He has no choice but to stay in here for a week and he’d better try to get what enjoyment he can from it. With the clearing of his mind, he remembers why he’s here, remembers his life-long hunger to be confined. His stomach flutters at the realization that this is it now, he’s done what he craved, craved and feared: there is solid, indestructible concrete surrounding his body like a glove, leaving him completely at the mercy of other people until the stone shell is broken open.
The thick neoprene of the wetsuit has just about enough give, to allow his manhood to swell at the realization that he won’t be able to get out of this hard tight rock for the next 7 days.
Granville enjoys hanging around the gallery, watching as the punters interact with his latest piece. The initial interest seeing the images of a handsome young male nude, painted on concrete. It is followed by the slow realization that there is more to it than just a set of paintings. He can see the confusion about the meaning of the heart and brain monitors, then recognition, that the boy is part of the exhibit, contained inside the work just as he is depicted on it. Many of them bend over the snorkel, now sawn-off flush with the cement, to listen to the regular breathing of the entombed youth, just to convince themselves that this is not a figment of their imagination. None of his works has had this much attention for at least a decade.
The guy addressing him is a few years younger than he, early thirties or so, and casually but expensively dressed.
“My name is Gregory McAlpin,” offering his hand, “I am a fan of your oeuvre. I believe the piece against the wall there is yours, right? A remarkable work...”
They stroll towards Ben’s concrete tomb, Granville expounding about his vision behind the piece: the pressure to perform in a modern world that is suffocating young people, the futility of struggling against the hard crushing reality.
“Am I right thinking that that young man is genuinely inside the work? How can he stay alive?”
“Yes, he’s been in there for six days now. In the plinth underneath the concrete block, there is a bottle of liquid nutrition that he can drink from through a hidden straw, and there is a catheter bag for his waste. Together with the breathing tube, that is everything a human being needs to stay alive. And it is only for a short period of course. Tomorrow I will unfortunately have to destroy the piece and release him again.”
“And it is solid cement, not a hollow sarcophagus?”
For the first time Granville notices that the guy’s chinos are tenting massively at his groin. “Solid, rock-hard concrete poured directly around his body.” The omission of the wetsuit barely feels like an exaggeration. “Not an inch of movement anywhere around him.”
“Amazing! Who is he? He looks very beautiful in your paintings.”
“His name is Ben, or Benedict Palmer to be precise.”
The man listens to the gentle breathing coming from the tube in the stone block, then pushes his thumb on the hole, silencing Granville’s protestations with a look. He smiles as the heart-rate immediately spikes up in shock.
“He really is in there. Imagine that, six days helplessly encased in concrete. Cut off from the outside world and unable to free himself.”
A guy in a suit, who’d been following them around, hands McAlpin an iPad showing an Instagram page, Ben’s Instagram page.
“Ben Palmer, nineteen-years-old, soon to be twenty. Your pictures are an excellent likeness, he really is excessively handsome. Is he your boyfriend?”
For a moment Granville’s taken aback. “No, no he isn’t! I’m... erm... not that way inclined.”
“I see... although I suspect Ben is - as you call it - that way inclined?”
“We never discussed it, but... erm... there is a campness to him that suggests he may well be, eh, ... more interested in men.”
McAlpin nods his approval.
“I will pay you a million pounds for the work.”
“What!? That is... Well, that is to say, I can’t... a lot of money, but...”
“Oh, my goodness, you’re putting me on the spot here. I’m really flattered, but the piece has to be destroyed tomorrow. It can’t be worth that much.”
“It is worth what I want to pay for it, surely. I like it and I want to become part of the performance element of the work. I want to know I have had the lad’s future in my hands, at least for a short while.”
“Ben has to be freed tomorrow and you can’t do that without breaking open the concrete.”
“I’m aware of that. Nonetheless, Two and a half million... final offer”
Granville is practically hyperventilating and McAlpin knows that he will sell, the avarice shines through in the artist’s eyes.
“I want the piece transferred to my home tonight,” he pushes his advantage, “so I can enjoy seeing it in place for just that one night. I want to sit in my study and look at it, knowing that I own the lad inside it and that he’ll be freed only because of my kindness.”
“But you promise to free Ben tomorrow?”
McAlpin assures he will. He is blatantly lying, of course. And he knows that Granville is fully aware that he’s lying. But he also knows that the artist realizes he’ll never have another chance to earn that type of money again. McAlpin is sure he’ll sell the piece, and with it he’ll sell off a young man’s freedom, perhaps reluctantly, but he will knowingly sacrifice Ben’s future to get his hands on the money.
One of those hands is offered with a hesitating tremor, “in that case, on the basis of your promise to free the kid tomorrow, I’ll accept your offer.”
So, it is ‘the kid’ now instead of ‘Ben’? The snake is distancing himself from his protégé already.
Gregory McAlpin smiles as he accepts the handshake. He has just bought himself a young man who will now remain encased for as long as Gregory wishes. A cute twink who will be fully dependent on his mercy if he is to move ever again. And Gregory isn’t feeling particularly merciful just now. Maybe in a month or two. Or maybe not, two-and-a-half million is a lot of money...
Tightly held on all sides, the shaking of the van journey doesn’t get through to Ben; nothing gets through the thick hard concrete.
The initial panic burned bright and died down and although it occasionally flares up, he no longer fears this entombment. With the loss of that terror, the early excitement has also waned gradually to a gentle fulfilment. He’s lived through his nightmare and through his dream, and he’s ready to come out of this thing now. Time has lost all meaning inside the cement. How long has it been? Days surely. It might be more than a week. A niggling doubt rises in his chest. What if it is more than a week and he hasn’t been released? What if they won’t let him go? He’s helpless in here if they don’t free him. His anxiety grows exponentially, finding evidence of a horrific future in every minute that passes monotonously. Soon, his heart is beating heavily as a new terror washes over him, the fear not of being stuck here and now, but fear of never being liberated.
Deep inside his concrete tomb, the young man is getting hard again.