Phoebe Hurst

Sky Blue


The security guard zipped my phone into a grey bag. The zip was made from heavy duty plastic, the kind used to seal a rucksack ahead of a long hiking trip. On the wall behind him were rows of metal lockers. He put the bag inside one of the lockers and shut the door. Over a bare reception desk, he handed me the key. It was attached to a disc that corresponded with the number on the locker. I was 703.  

“Go straight ahead,” the guard said. “Through that door.”  

It was not a necessary instruction. There were only two doors: the one through which I’d entered the art gallery, and another in front with a large arrow painted next to it. But I understood why the guard had wanted to guide me. Being without a phone, even for a few seconds, rendered you vulnerable. I was basically a child now.  

I thanked him and walked through the door.  

The room on the other side was long and dimly lit. In the middle was a bench for people to rest while looking at the paintings on the wall. But there were no paintings on the wall. There were no sculptures or video artworks, no light installations or hanging tapestries. The room was empty. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I made out a woman and a man.  

The woman was sitting on the bench. She wore an anorak with the sleeves pulled over her hands and flinched as I approached.  

“It’s an hour,” she said. “They don’t let you leave before.” 

“I know,” I told her.  

Everyone knew this. The exhibition, the latest by an East German who defected to become one of Europe’s most celebrated conceptual artists, was in every newspaper. There were tweets and Instagram posts, entries on blogs, even TikTok videos. To enter the exhibition meant surrendering your phone for an entire hour. No one, not even the press or influencers with follower counts that stretched into the millions, was allowed to bring their phone into the room. Art critics had to describe what they had seen using memory alone. Instagrammers took hurried selfies before their phones disappeared into the grey bags.   

“Deceptively simple,” people called the exhibition. Or: totally sick I was like a changed person on the other side.  

The man appeared next to me. His knee juddered to an internal rhythm and his eyes were wide.  

“We’ve been in here for two and a half minutes,” he said, then paused to read his watch. “Now three. So that’s fifty-seven minutes to go. That’s a really
long time. God, I hate being bored. When I was a kid I couldn’t sit still in class. The teachers hated it but I’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD now.” 

“Why did you come?” I asked. 

The man answered straight away.  

“To test myself. You?” 

I did not answer. Something about the man told me to stay quiet, like an animal that senses a predator. His knee continued to pulse and he looked irritably at the ceiling.  

He said, “You know that he was tortured.”  

The woman in the anorak looked up. 

“Who?” she asked.  

“The artist,” the man said. “It was during the Soviet era and one of his neighbours dobbed him into the Stasi.” 

“Why would they do that?” the woman said.  

I decided to speak then. 

“Because of his apartment. He painted the front of his apartment blue. People didn’t like this. They thought it was suspicious.” 

The man swore under his breath, the woman fidgeted with her anorak. What must it have been like to live in fear of betrayal? And from your neighbours, people whose sneezes you recognised through the floorboards.  

The man began to pace.  

“I wonder how many people break out,” he said. 

“You’ve got to last the hour,” the woman said. “That’s the whole point. One hour and no phone.” 

If I had answered the man’s question, I would have said that what brought me here was a photograph of the artist’s apartment. The blue stood out like a shock of electricity against the devoured grey of post-war Berlin. Blue walls, blue front door, blue windows. I came to the exhibition because I wanted to understand the person who did this. What makes someone risk torture in a way that is so public? 

It was the same blue as the sky. Sky blue.    

“I heard that people come back,” I said. “They do another hour and then another.” 

The woman nodded rapidly. 

“I’ll come back as many times as it takes. Sometimes I hate my phone so much I want to throw it in the sea.” 

“Or from the top of a building,” the man said, still pacing. “I work on the eighteenth floor and sometimes I think about lobbing it through the window.” 

“But we don’t,” I said. “We never part with our phones.” 

The mood in the room shifted. If I were to guess the time of day, I would have said a late November evening, when everything is dark and birds seek the warmth of their nests. But there was no warmth for us in the room, only a bench and four blank walls.  

“Twenty-three minutes,” the man said. “I can’t believe it’s only been twenty-three fucking minutes.” 

I kept the photo of the artist’s apartment on my bedside table. Each morning I looked at the blue, but then I’d reach for my phone and forget all about it.

“Please stop counting,” the woman said. “It makes things worse.” 

The man came to a halt in the middle of the room. The woman looked at him nervously. He had the wide shoulders of a rugby player and a hard, flat nose. I wondered whether he was counting the minutes in his head, then I realised that he was blanking the woman.  

I asked, “What’s your name?” 

The woman tried to smile. “Sasha. And yours?” 


Neither of us asked the man his name.

“I came because I’m pregnant,” Sasha said suddenly. “When the baby comes, I don’t want to look at my phone instead of her face.” 

Her cuffs were rimmed with dirt and she was younger than I had previously thought.  

The man turned around.  

“You’re pregnant,” he said. 

Sasha shrunk into her anorak. 


“You’re pregnant,” the man repeated. “And you came to this exhibition.” 

“I thought it would be good for the baby.” 

The man gave a bark of laughter. Sasha began to shake. I patted my back pocket but it was no use. I was looking for my phone.  

“You think locking yourself in a room without access to emergency medical help is good for an unborn baby?” the man said. “How could you be so irresponsible?” 

No one had warned us about this. The newspaper reviews, the posts on Instagram. None of them had mentioned the other people in the room.  

“It’s only for an hour,” Sasha said, her voice breaking.  

The man barked again. 

“An hour is a long time. We’ve been in here for twenty-three minutes. Anything could happen in the next thirty-seven.” 

But there had been a warning. The artist was tortured for his sky blue apartment. The eyes that chose the white of the walls, the hands that positioned the bench were tracked with pain inflicted by people in a room just like this one.  

The man squared up to Sasha. His face was shiny with anger.  

Sky blue. It was so hard to make myself remember. 

“I want to get out,” Sasha shouted, running towards the door. “Please, let me leave!” 

I caught her small body between my arms. She hid her face in my shoulder and began to cry. Beneath the folds of her anorak, somewhere deeply buried, I hoped that her baby was sleeping.  

It was a while before I noticed that the man had moved. He was standing with his back to the door, arms folded neatly in front. He did not take his eyes off us. 

“Twenty-nine minutes,” he said. 

Phoebe Hurst is a writer and journalist from Peterborough. Currently Assistant Editor at The Guardian, she was previously Managing Editor of Vice and has written for publications including the Quietus, Dazed and Wired. She had a short story published in this year’s Aesthetica Creative Writing Award annual and was also longlisted for the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize. She is a represented by Imogen Pelham at Marjacq.

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