By Jack Wildern
There is nothing I could say that would convince you of my sanity. I need you to understand that I am in law and by virtue of my surroundings, mad. Psychotic if you want a proper term. I tell you this because I am tired of trying to convince those that sit with me that I am anything else. I will tell you the story of what happened to me as best I can describe it. But you will have to accept that how I came to be here, in the immediate aftermath of my unfortunate incident, is not clear to me. I will not discuss any aspect of my sectioning or subsequent hearings. If you want that story, speak to the doctors.
I’ll start by saying that I’ve no idea what the house looks like now. I assume you could pay it a visit for your research, but I’ll describe it anyway. It was a sixties build. Semi detached and generously sized. I bought the place in two thousand and fourteen but the original decor had been largely retained. The three bedrooms were pink. The living and dining rooms a pastel green and the bathroom and kitchen a colour that was described to me by the estate agent as “jonquil,” which is basically yellow. Outside there was a detached garage, large driveway and a good sized back garden. Sixties houses tend to have more of a footprint because back in those days growing vegetables and fruit was still popular. I digress slightly but safe to say for the price I paid, I got a nice if dated space.
The circumstances that led me to acquire the house is a bitter tale that has no bearing on this story. It was my solution to a protracted divorce deal that saw me lose over a hundred thousand pounds in cash and about a stone and a half in weight. Luckily I had no children to think about. You could reasonably argue that a house of that size is pointless for a single man, but I was forty two years old and the thought of living alone in some fancy modern flat made me feel uncomfortably desperate. In truth, I guess I saw the house as a chance to reinvent myself along with the four walls surrounding me.
I moved in on the sixth of May. The weather was stunning. I’ve always said that you can’t beat a British summers day and that year we had been blessed with sunshine and warm breezes since April. The move itself didn’t take long. My ex wife had our existing home and most of the content and so my life in possessions consisted of a single luton van. By early afternoon I found myself sitting amongst a few old boxes, a cup of coffee and for the first time in twenty years, complete silence. Actually I was very aware of the lack of noise. Amongst the general exploring and rummaging in my new surroundings, I hadn’t heard so much as a footstep from my neighbour. I made a mental note to give their door a knock after I was settled and decided instead to take a look at the back garden.
I wish I hadn’t. It was a jungle. Browning grass, sick from a lack of sunlight was knee height. Weeds and plants battled for space amongst the overgrown shrubs. What passed as bird table jutted up from this mess, old as time, as if the birds themselves had disappeared and left it as a forgotten relic for us humans to mourn. I should point out that my gardening experience was little to none. Against my ex wife’s protests I had our previous garden stripped and laid to synthetic grass. I spent many summers smuggly drinking beer while my neighbours fired up lawn mowers and strimmers. I was a very different man then and that alluring odour of freshly mown grass meant nothing to me.
I was about to turn in for the day when voice distracted me.
“You’ve got your work cut out there.”
Her name was Daphne Rhodes.
Your wondering what all this has to do with my situation. How on earth I went from living in a three bedroom chalet to a room with a lock on the outside. I don’t blame you. I can’t explain it either. But it happened quickly. On that beautiful afternoon in May, I stood in the warm sunlight, listening to the birds chirping happily in the trees. By June the first I was watching the shadow from the barred window in my room creep slowly across the tiled floor and listening to the sounds of doors slamming shut in empty corridors.
Daphne looked at me with a smile that made her younger than she probably was. Deep lines punctuated her face, particularly around her eyes. It was as if they had been grooved out over time by too much laughter. She wore a large rim hat in a splendid blue colour, fastened with cord below her chin. A curled lock of white hair peeped out from underneath the hat onto her forehead. Resting on the small fence that separated our gardens she wore thick green gloves and in her right hand held a menacing looking pair of clippers with the remnants of some unfortunate weed streaked across the blades.
“Hi.” I returned the smile and waded closer to the fence, offering an outstretched hand. “John. Sorry I’ve not been over to say hello yet.” Daphne waved away my hand on the pretense that her own gloved fingers were covered in Alsomeria. Which in case you are wondering, is a type of lilly capable of irritating the skin. We spoke as people who do not know each other do, going through the motions in a pleasant but cautious way. She enquired as to my situation and after a brief but honest answer politely brought the conversation to an end. It was an easy meeting and she made me feel welcome. I must say that I liked her immediately.
In the days that followed I spent more time outside, picking and ripping my way through months worth of overgrowth. Daphne was always about on her side of the fence to offer advice. The garden she tended was nothing short of beautiful. The grass was an emerald green, flowers of all shapes and sizes filled out immaculately cut borders and despite the dry weather the earthy fragrance of fallen rain frequently wafted gently across from her garden to mine. I often stood outside in the mornings quite mesmerised by the smell and feeling of serenity that her garden protracted. It was during one of those mornings that things took a turn for the strange.
I was referring to Daphne about low maintenance shrubbery when, from the corner of my eye I caught movement from the upstairs dorma window of her house. I turned my head to see a stooped gray shape of a man disappear behind a draped curtain. The mind plays awful tricks on us when we are caught unawares and in that moment I was almost certain that I’d seen a ghost! I actually let out a brief shout. Upon realising my alarm, Daphne followed my gaze toward the glass.
“Oh, lord. John I am so sorry I should have said. That’s my husband…Michael.” I stood, trying to process the name in the wake of my growing embarrassment, acutely aware that I had just cried out in front of my elderly neighbour.
“Husband?” In the days following our first meeting I could not recall Daphne ever mentioning such a person. In fact I couldn’t recall her mentioning anyone else at all. Looking back on it now, this was odd and maybe if I’d noticed, the events preceding wouldn’t had come at such a shock. But hindsight is a wonderful thing is it not? “I…well I thought you were alone?” I said, perhaps too abruptly as Daphne’s smile faltered. “I’m sorry, I meant no offence.”
“That’s quite alright. I sometimes forget he’s there myself,” she joked.
My nerves safely back to normal I listened as Daphne explained that her husband had become quite reclusive in recent months and that his interaction with people was minimal. He was in essence a very lonely man. She delivered this message with such disappointment and sadness that I felt quite hopeless. We spent the rest of the day in silence going about our business with the nod of a head or passing smile. Of course I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to know why her husband found himself bound to the house but it didn’t seem right to ask and so I did my best to forget about it. And yet, even in the warm afternoon sun I thought I felt a chill whenever my back was turned against that window.
I saw Micheal again later that week while Daphne and I were chatting over the fence. I’d never enjoyed gardening but with a little guidance I was starting to make some real progress. The lawn, though yellow was at least mown and I’d removed the best part of three sack fulls of weeds and unwanted plants under Daphne’s watchful eye. I was about to lift one out to the garage when I saw him. Occupying the same place as before, he lingered slightly longer this time and I was able to make out a crooked nose and bird like stature. Whether she noticed him or not, Daphne paid no attention. I decided to take her lead and get on with my day.
A few days past before I saw Daphne again. The weather had taken a turn and I spent the majority of three tedious days in hardware stores trying to decide how much paint I would need to resurrect the living room. I guess you could say that the time was well spent as I’d managed to get three coats done with enough left over for the hallway. However, the fine rain and dark clouds let a poor light in through the windows and turned my off white walls into a depressing grey canvas. I went to bed that night feeling as heavy as the sky and I think for the first time in my life, genuinely lonely. You probably think that I’m being melodramatic but you have to understand, this was the first time I’d been on my own. My ex wife and I, well we hated each other by the end, but it’s funny how little you appreciate life other than your own filling up the space around you. It didn’t help either that I’d taken several weeks off of work in anticipation of the move and subsequent works to the house. Time started as an abundant nicetie but very quickly it had become an ominous weight.
The next morning brought an end to my self pity. The sky was a glorious blue and the smell when I opened the door to the garden was beautiful. I couldn’t wait to be outside. Daphne was already pottering about on her side by the time I got out there but one look at her and my lust for the day died. She looked like she’d aged years in the few days that we hadn’t seen each other. My concern was enough to ask a very direct question about her wellbeing. She smiled, though the lines around her eyes looked more like trenches of sadness than the rivers of laughter that I’d become accustomed to. She explained to me that the days before had been difficult. When I pressed her on this she simply moved her eyes toward the dorma window and shook her head.
“He needs help John. He’s so lonely. I can’t remember the last time they he held a conversation with anyone.” By comparison, my days of painting and self wallowing seemed positively redundant in comparison to Daphne’s. I listened with concern as she described how Michael had taken to pacing the floors of the house and shouting out in his sleep. “I shouldn’t ask it of you John, but I’m at my wit’s end. Come around will you? Perhaps see if you can get him to pop out.” While I doubted that I could tempt this reclusive man to join me in anything social, I did nevertheless agree to call around and perhaps persuade him to put the kettle on. And so later that day, as the sun finally started to give way to night I plucked up the courage to knock on the door.
You would like me to say something like “the door opened on creaking hinges,” yes? Well, you will be disappointed and to be honest I would have taken that over what did happen. Or to put correctly, what didn’t. You see there was no answer, no sign of life whatsoever. The curtains were drawn and no light escaped between them. Also, considering how beautiful the back garden was, the house itself looked quite scruffy. The windows were smeared, the facings looked dirty and the welcome mat was worn and frayed. I told myself that I shouldn’t see any of these things as unusual. Daphne was a very pleasant lady and I was quite sure that she would have had many friends or social activities to fill her evening calendar. Micheal, well I had some idea of his background so I hadn’t really expected him to come to the door. But yet, Daphne had asked me specifically to visit and I questioned why she would do this and then leave, knowing full well that her husband would be unlikely to entertain a guest on his own. And would a woman of such meticulous attention to detail and beautiful things be content with the house in its current state? I stood for a few more seconds, debated giving another knock and thought better of it. This wasn’t my problem afterall and I had done what was asked of me.
Later that evening I found myself relaxing a little with some music and a few cold beers. A sofa had arrived a couple of days before and I lay content. My miserable grey paint looked quite handsome by lamplight and I created hand shadows on the wall while looking at my newly callused fingers. The beer had kicked in nicely and I was feeling very manly with my new found freedom and batchelor status. I was mumbling along to the music when three loud thumps disturbed my front door. I flicked a quick look at the clock as I approached the hallway. 10.32pm and wondered who on earth would be knocking on my door at this hour. My heart returned to a normal rythym as I spied a shape in a dark coloured hat through the frosted glass. Daphne had obviously returned home to the disappointing news from her husband of my visit and his refusal to come to the door. All of a sudden I felt rotten for her and angry about him. Why would he put his wife through that? Worse still, make her apologise on his behalf.
“It’s ok,” I said, opening the door, “really Daphne I unders_” A police officer stood stoic under the porch light. His frame almost completely filling the doorway. I could just make out a yellow and blue cruiser parked up adjacent to the pavement.
“Good evening sir.” I opened my mouth to say something and closed it shut when nothing came out. Sensing my shock the officer laughed. He informed me that there was nothing to worry about. PC Howard was his name. He wanted to know if I was settling in ok and smiled when I commented on his astute awareness of the comings and goings from the area. “I wouldn’t be a very good police officer if I didn’t notice these things would I?” We chatted for a minute or so before I could stand it no longer.
“Officer Howard, please can you tell me why you are really here?” He nodded his head gently. It transpired that earlier that evening the police had received a call from a Mr Micheal Rhodes. His words drifted through my brain, failing to attach themselves to any coherent node or electron.
“Mr Rhodes says that you were banging on his door earlier and_”
“Banging on his door, at approximately…” Howard removed a small notebook from an overstuffed breast pocket. “Eight forty-five this evening.”
“He also says that since you moved in you’ve been hanging around by his fence, sometimes leaning on it and acting strangely.” I burst out laughing and questioned the whole incident as some sort of elaborate joke. “It’s no joke sir. Mr Rhodes has been quite disturbed.” My confusion was slowly giving away to anger and I tried to assure Howard that I only knocked on the door because I wanted to introduce myself and…my god, I was ever only trying to be pleasant! He asked if I was ok and I said yes, but that I was upset. He said that he understood. “But look, people have very different tolerance levels. Can I give you some advice?” I was so dumbfounded that all I could do was shrug my shoulders in defeat. “Leave each other be. Live your lives and stay out of each others way in future. Trust me, you don’t want to be drawn in to a dispute.”
“A dispute?” Howard started to turn. As he did I spotted another officer in the cruiser talking on the radio. He was looking right at me. And that as they say, was that. Off they went. I stood looking out at the dark sky, smelling the rain brew overhead, wondering what on earth just happened. It won’t surprise you to learn that Howard was one of the officers who would eventually take me into custody.
I suppose what really upset me about Howard’s visit was the language he had used. How I was “acting strangely.” You sit with me now and do I strike you as strange? Do any of my actions that I have described come across as odd in any way? I’d like to think not and I was angry, if not furious that this man who I didn’t know from Adam could accuse me of such a thing, simply for striking up an over the fence relationship with his wife. I mean we were neighbours for Christ sake!
In the days that followed I grew increasingly paranoid. I couldn’t understand what I had done to offend Michael. Daphne had warned me that he was reclusive, but I started to believe that he was in fact mentally ill. What sane person would call the police for knocking on their door? Then, one restless evening I heard what I thought was a person crying in the night, deep lumbering sobs through my bedroom wall. Whether it was him or her I couldn’t be sure but it convinced me that one of two things was likely. Either Micheal was seriously unwell or he was abusing Daphne. The more I thought about it the more the latter made perfect sense. Our conversations in the garden, they were just subtle cries for help. The front of the house was in tatters because Daphne never saw it. The garden was her prison and a simple front for keeping up appearances. I suddenly felt very sick. That night that I knocked on the door must have been hell for her. She wanted help and I had failed miserably.
The next morning I had every intention of calling Howard and explaining the situation. Surely after hearing my side of the story it would lead to an investigation or at least a follow up visit. Michael could deny me access to the house, but he would struggle to justify opening the door to the police. I was about to make the call when I heard a crash from outside. I bolted for the backdoor and out into the garden. A light rain was falling and despite the season a chilling breeze whipped across my face. This was no day for gardening and yet there Daphne was, her back to me staring at a shattered plant pot. Black soil gathered around her feet, turning to a wet mud.
I wasted no time. “Daphne I need to speak with you.”
It was the strangest thing. She didn’t move, and yet I heard her as if she were standing right next to me.
“I’m sorry John. For all of this. I just thought you might have been able to help him.”
With that she fell and the sky, I’d swear to you it darkened right there and then, as if someone was controlling it with a dimmer switch. My first instinct was to jump the fence but no sooner did I put downward pressure on the damn, rotten thing, it started to bow. My mind raced, there in front of me my neighbour and friend lay motionless. The rain had turned heavy and drops hit her hat, bouncing off with an awful hollow noise that seemed maddening to me in my state of panic.
Here is where things start to get foggy for me. I hope you can appreciate that I am doing my best to give you an accurate account. But my god it was…well it was as if I was watching the whole thing play out on an old, out of tune television set. Something must have snapped me out of my stupor as I found myself running across the front lawn of my house and leaping the short distance to Daphne’s front door. I didn’t knock this time. Instead I pounded and kicked at it, shouting and raving at the dreadful occupant, who I’d never met but harboured so much anger for.
“Micheal! Christ man open the door. It’s Daphne, she’s fallen!”
My blows became stronger, the door knocker clattered back and forth like judges hammer. Had I carried on, I think I might have actually broken the damn thing off of the hinges. Then, in the melee I heard a click and a turn. There was this silence, this complete and utter silence as the door opened and an elderly man stood weeping in the entrance. I can not describe to you the feeling that I had. The sadness was insurmountable. It was like it just spilled…no, popped out, like a cork from a shaken bottle. My heart pounded and we stood there for maybe a fraction of a second before he raised a crooked finger.
“You…you go away.”
I raised my hands in front of my chest. Our dislike for each other could wait for another day.
“Daphne’s fallen. Let me in. I can hel_”
“Why are you doing these…these things?”
A tear spilled from one of his rheumy eyes at the mention of her name.
“How dare you. Why would you say that? Why would you say her name!”
“She’s dead you evil bastard! My wife has been dead for just three…for three months.” He collapsed in the door way.
Shock is a funny thing and it’s true what they say. You can never tell how you will react to something until it happens to you. But fear…I can tell you about fear. I can tell you exactly what you will do when faced with something so extraordinary that your brain simply cannot process it. I shoved passed him, his words not having the time to settle and ran through the hallway. It was cold. I thought, god it sounds ridiculous, but I thought I could see my breath hanging in front of me. Behind, I could hear crying and I knew then that it was him that I’d heard through my bedroom wall.
Try as I might I cannot remember how I ended up outside. But I do remember that fear. It was a feeling, like being weighed down under water. That’s what it feels like, you understand? This whole fight or flight theory, it’s nonsense. Real fear pins you in place and drowns you until your mind can’t take it anymore. Logic and reason cease to exist and in that moment when sanity hangs by a thread, your brain begins to accept that everything you thought made sense in life is utter rubbish.
I vaguely recall the rain hammering down on my skin…and bouncing from a hat, faded and barely visible amongst the tall brown grass.
The doctors told me that when the police arrived they found me outside on my knees, sobbing uncontrollably. I don’t recall this at all, but the guilt I feel for what I did to Michael will stay with me. I’ve tried writing to him but my letters are returned unopened. They won’t tell me if he still lives there, although after what happened, it would come as no surprise to learn if he had moved on.
I suppose you would like to know if I’ve seen anything strange since that day. Well I can honestly say that I haven’t. You would like to know if I live in fear of the dark or check under the bed before I go to sleep at night yes? I don’t, and I like the dark. It makes me feel at ease. No, the thing that really gets to me is why? I’ve played it over and over again in my head and the only conclusion is that somehow Daphne…or whatever it was knew that Michael and I needed help. That maybe we could have found something in our loneliness, maybe even a friendship. Now that you’ve met me and heard my story you will have to make that judgement for yourself. Or perhaps the doctors are right, perhaps I am mad. Either way our time is up. I really do hope that you have everything you need. It might be worth your while speaking to some of the other patients, although I doubt you will find another one with a story like mine. Anyway, it was good meeting you, I’m off to see a friend now. If you think my story is far fetched you should hear his. He thinks that hell follows him wherever he goes. Now that’s a story worth listening to.
About Jack Wildern
Jack Wildern is a writer from the UK, currently studying creative writing.