The Experiment

By Fiona Turnbull

One morning Sam Gregor woke from a fitful night’s sleep to discover that he and his entire family had been placed inside a giant bell jar. He looked anxiously around. His wife Grace lay in bed beside him as she had the night before. His two teenage children, Charlie and Alex, were sleeping peacefully in their beds. Sam Gregor got up quietly, taking care not to disturb the others as he padded gingerly round the room. His eyes were gradually adjusting to the early daylight of this chilly winter morning. Everything seemed deceptively normal. The table where they ate their meals, the corner kitchen where they cooked, the shabby sofa where they sat and watched television. All were in their usual place. 

Sam Gregor wondered for a brief moment if he was dreaming. Yet beneath the soles of his feet, he felt glass in place of the thick pile carpet with its swirling patterns. Instead of looking up at the familiar pock-marked ceiling where leaking pipes had deposited stains of dirty water, Sam Gregor gazed open-mouthed at a grey sky. Where once there had been chipped plaster and peeling paint, he saw glass walls. Most puzzling of all, when Sam Gregor went over to the kitchen to steady himself on the side of the worktop, he came face-to-face with a woman perched on a fold-up chair just the other side of the glass wall looking in. The woman wore a loose white labcoat over her pin-striped business suit, pointed high heel shoes and a lanyard draped officially around her neck. Her glossy dark hair was piled in a glamorous knot on the top of her head. She wore glasses on the end of her nose and clasped a clipboard. She looked up blankly at him for a brief moment, then looked down again and began writing. 

All of a sudden, the shock was too much for Sam Gregor to bear alone. He rushed back over to the bed and shook his wife awake. ‘Grace,’ he muttered urgently in a low voice. ‘Grace. Wake up. Come and see.’ Grace was used to Sam Gregor’s restless panics so she did not take his frantic tone too seriously. Slowly she stretched herself awake. However, as she began to open her eyes, she was hit by an uneasy, disorientating feeling. Seconds later, she sat bolt upright. “Sam Gregor, where are our walls and our ceiling?” she screamed in horror. “What have they done? What’s going on?”  

Troubled by their mother’s unfamiliar outburst, the children woke abruptly and leapt out of bed. The family pushed against the glass walls, tripped over each other, frantically opened and shut cupboards, looked under their beds and knelt to the ground to feel their new glass floor. They shouted to their neighbours but found that they too were trapped inside their very own bell jars and consequently couldn’t hear them. Charlie burst out crying.  Alex laughed uncontrollably.

It was 8 o’clock when the radio alarm came on. The sound suddenly stilled the Gregor family. They stood as in a tableau around their kitchen table. The announcer’s familiar soothing voice washed over them. 

“Fellow citizens,” the announcer oozed. “You have the honour of being selected to participate in a prestigious experiment. Your esteemed government wishes to investigate the benefits of reduced social contact on individuals and families. From today you are no longer allowed to leave your home. You are no longer allowed to mix with anyone outside your bell jar. You will have food delivered once a week. You will work at home using your home computers. Your children will be sent schoolwork to complete. You will be observed throughout. Anyone deviating from these rules will face trial and punishment. You will receive a £25 voucher when the experiment concludes.” 

This was followed by patriotic music. Sam Gregor felt a strange mix of relief and panic upon hearing this announcement. So the esteemed government deemed this experiment necessary. It was an honour to participate. They had no choice so there was no point complaining. It would last a few days, a few weeks tops, surely. These were the kinds of answers Sam gave Charlie as he followed him round the flat asking an endless stream of questions. Alex seemed most taken with the idea of not going to school and spent the rest of the day in bed. Grace Gregor kept busy to quell the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She would stop every so often and gasp in disbelief then tell herself and anyone who was listening, ‘It doesn’t do any good to dwell on it.’

As it turned out, much to their surprise, Sam Gregor and his family rather enjoyed the first few weeks. Life slowed down to a very pleasant pace now that there was nowhere to go and no one to see. Though he missed seeing his customers, Sam Gregor had been surprised how easily he had been able to carry out his job as a computer repair man from the kitchen table. Grace Gregor was not in the least surprised since she already spent most of her days behind the scenes at this very kitchen table running the business. Charlie worked assiduously at lessons. Alex opted to spend most the of the day in bed, flicking somewhat aimlessly through schoolwork. In the evenings, the family laughed, chatted, looked at old photos, watched favourite films, cooked together, took turns with the chores. ‘This isn’t so bad, after all,’ Sam Gregor said to his family one evening and felt a surge of pleasure and pride in their little unit of four. 

The change crept up on Sam Gregor, almost imperceptibly. He began to feel a vague gnawing dissatisfaction that only grew as the days and weeks went by. Sam Gregor was a man who liked precision and facts. That was why he was so good at his job. He grew weary of the platitudes on the radio. He began to suspect the government’s motives. He wanted results and answers. He felt anger that no one would tell them how long the experiment was expected to last. He felt fear that it would last forever. He tired of the woman outside the flat. What was she even writing on her wretched clipboard? The children managed to squabble over the slightest thing. No-one could agree which film to watch, what food to eat, who would sit in which seat at the kitchen table, what time to switch the lights out, when to get up. As if any of it even mattered. Grace Gregor exploded regularly. She would often find she was having to pick up pieces of herself from where they were strewn across the flat and having to put herself back together.   

It was not much longer before a resigned lethargy set in. Family meals were a rare occurrence. Each member of the family scavenged whenever they felt like it. Conversation dried up. Sam Gregor was wedded to his computer, staying online long after he had actually finished his work for the day. No-one had worn anything other than leisurewear for weeks. The children emanated weariness. It smelt of decay. 

One morning as winter was turning to spring, Sam Gregor was the first to wake. He dragged himself out of bed towards the kitchen. He had taken his first few steps before he sensed that the ground beneath his feet was soft and warm. He realised with a sense of disbelief that he was walking on carpet and looking round the room at their old drab wallpaper and dirty ceiling. Overnight the bell jar had gone. He peered through the gap that had always been there in the grimy blinds above the kitchen sink and saw that the white-coated woman had gone too. 

Sam Gregor woke his family as he had on that very first day to share the news. Their consternation this time was muted. They waited all day at the kitchen table, certain there would be an announcement from the government on the radio. None was forthcoming. They stared nervously at their newly-reappeared front door. Was it safe to go outside now? Was the experiment over? Or maybe this was a test? They debated all day. Sam Gregor passed a sleepless night as these questions and others whirred in an endless loop in his mind. 

It was on the third day that it suddenly dawned on Sam Gregor that, with the radio still stubbornly silent, they were going to have to decide for themselves. Grace was adamant they should leave. Sam Gregor was sure it was too risky. In his mind’s eye, he pictured himself opening the door and being gunned down by a government firing squad. Finally, though, they reached a decision. The family gathered as Sam Gregor gripped the door handle. 

I’m Fiona Turnbull, a gestalt therapist working in private practice and in palliative care. I’ve rediscovered my deep love of writing during the pandemic and this story is just one that has emerged during this time.

I’d love to know how you respond to this story so am happy to be contacted by email at [email protected]. Website: www.fionaturnbull.co.uk.

This page first appeared in the UKAGP Newsletter. View the Newsletter here.