The passage into what we refer to as The Gallery begins by the old booth where Mr. L, the manager, sells his tickets, on the edge of the ill-maintained car park, on the outskirts of this quiet border town. From there it approaches a mossy hillock, with a rocky outcropping in which there is a small but heavy iron gate over a tunnel mouth, the tightly-packed dirt floor beyond descending into the cold bowels of the Earth.
I've worked here some six months now. Most other students begin working here in their first year but until my situation changed I was able to live on only my grant; I spent the first two summers at home with my family. Now that is no longer a possibility, I'm glad paid work was so easy to come by. The shifts are often at peculiar times as The Gallery never closes, and the standing still in the heat-sapping tunnels for hours at a time is a physical strain, but we may occupy our minds visualising flashcards, mentally listing symptoms, drug interactions, side effects, experimenting with various mnemonics or whatever else we wish. Revising as we work. This is of great benefit for us employees, for as medical students our work-load is strenuous. Which is to be expected on any medical course, but on top of this our University infamously requires us to learn much more than is entirely necessary. What possible use is it to me as a health professional to know the name of the discoverer of this technique or that, or the origins of the words we use? How does it benefit an patient's health that his physician can give the literal translation of pallor mortis or the etymology of leukocyte?
It is a peculiarity of the place that all but medical students who apply here for work are summarily declined. In the recent past, the Pasteur University (where we study and with which The Gallery shares its name) had a small law department. A number of the attending law students felt that The Gallery must have been breaking some equal-employment laws by refusing to take them on, so under the guidance of their professors they appealed for a ruling from the governments on both sides of the border, only to receive the same answer from each; that The Gallery was on the other side of the border and out of their jurisdiction. Further probing elicited threats of legal action against the students for wasting the court's time, and so were promptly abandoned. The law department was never officially shut down, but shortly after this the entire faculty began to drift gradually away. Over a decade they disappeared, one by one they ceased to attend to their offices or appointments, their personal residences left abandoned and empty overnight. This led to a number of local conspiracy theories, speculation that The Gallery was perhaps a politician's tax haven or some other corrupt governmental enterprise, or else the faculty murdered for prying into someone's dark secret. This theory became so popular that an investigation was raised into the whole affair, but it transpired that the staff were all alive and well, mainly living quiet and happy lives in their home towns and villages of origin. They'd simply lost interest in academia. Even if we accept these seemingly rational theories of corruption, citing threats and blackmail for their leaving, the peculiar every-day specificities of the entire charade just lead to further questions.
First, understand that The Gallery is not a gallery in any common sense of the word, but in fact a vast knot of man-made tunnels carved through the soft local sedimentary rock, presumably at some great cost. The roughly hewn walls are painted in black and white gradients, which give a peculiar quality to the shadows, heightening them in places, tricking the eye into seeing them reversed in others. This effect is strengthened by the lighting of the place; the light fittings are placed at irregular intervals, a dim florescence, flickering and stuttering which often blinks off, leaving the whole tunnel in darkness for long moments in which a visitor must carefully feel the way forward, or stand stock still, so as to not hit their head against the deceptively low ceilings.
There are few visitors at all, as it is not advertised in any place or any media, not in travel guides nor arts or culture magazines, it simply exists. If it were to be publicised, it is unclear who the target market would be. The only draw of the place is that people do not know what to expect. If they did, why would anyone come? When tourists do find their way here, it is usually those taking a rest stop on their journey from elsewhere to elsewhere further, directed here without explanation by the locals when asked what there might be to do to kill time in this quiet border town. Sometimes weeks will go by with no paying visitors, only us employees waiting in the tunnels. How this thin trickle of income can support the cost of the lighting, let alone our wages, remains unanswered. Mr. L is characteristically silent on the question of who pays the bills, how and why.
The part of the job I most dislike is the paint. It gets everywhere; in your eyes, nose, ears, blocking the pores of your skin from head to toe and needing painful scrubbing to remove. It is said that a Pasteur student can never truly hide where they studied as they will forever have grey paint on some hard to reach part of their body. Mr. L freely provides copious amounts of paint remover, but the unpleasant effects such caustic chemicals have on the skin rapidly become obvious; it's best to use them as little as possible. The usual solution is to take shifts in blocks, so we needn't remove and re-apply the paint too often, perhaps with short periods between in which to rest a little. Even so, it's not uncommon to see three or four students at a seminar or lecture looking like the subjects of poorly developed vintage photographs, faces and limbs still that strangely affected greyscale. The rest of the class of course clean faced, with tell-tale traces of grey paint under their fingernails, embedded in their cuticles.
While the paint takes a great deal of scrubbing to remove, the application is relatively simple. Male or female, the employee is stripped naked (semi-nude is permitted for the bashful, at lower rate of pay) and stood in the paint room. There, two industrial paint machines spray them from a variety of calculated angles with black and white paint, which they must allow to dry without moving so as not to smudge. The resulting effect is quite peculiar to see. In the same manner as the walls, the way the paint sits on the body creates optical illusions of impossible and contradictory bodily contours. Even in daylight it can be uncomfortable to view. In addition to the paint, some of us are required to wear matching headpieces with the appearance of hair carved from stone. Similarly, many of the statues, all of which are painted in the same manner as us employees, wear wigs of human hair.
Along the tunnel walls are numerous alcoves, most of which stand empty. A number are taken by those statues of men and women in a variety of poses; leaning, flexing, relaxing on the ground, eyes always closed. The remaining alcoves are ours to occupy, or not, as we see fit. It is there we are employed to stand stone still, eyes shut, mimicking the statues. In the long moments when the lights flicker out, we are to change pose, or move from our original alcoves to others. At least, we believe we are to. This is what we were instructed to do by the now graduated students who worked here before us, as they in turn were instructed by those before them, and those before them. It seems that has always been the arrangement. Mr. L does not advise nor intervene and is not known to have ever inspected or criticised employee conduct. Regardless, we follow the given instructions as best we can. Perhaps this is due in part to the persistent sensation while in the tunnels of being watched, a feeling reported by employees and visitors both. Or perhaps this is simply because we don't know what else to do down there. We strike our poses and we immerse ourselves within our private mental worlds until it's time to leave.
Though The Gallery has just one entrance and one exit, its paths are extensive and labyrinthine. Few visitors find their way to the surface as quickly as they might like. Upon entering, the gate is locked behind them and the visitor finds themselves in a long, wide entrance tunnel, which continues some way before dividing into two, smaller bronchial paths. These in turn divide then subdivide into the poorly lit, rhizomatic distance. The tunnels have been dug in such a fashion that it's far from straightforward to travel deliberately from start to finish; dead ends and subtle twists turn a simple journey from A to B into a distended tour of every conceivable letter of the alphabet, and perhaps some which are inconceivable. Not that it is an impossible or even difficult maze; all visitors find their way out eventually. Some sooner than others. After groping their way through the tunnels for what felt like but was not a lifetime, they find themselves in the final tunnel, where, surfacing in a lonely field of tussocks and faerie mounds, the passage ends, abruptly.