By Beckie Henderson
She sat back in the comfortable chair, steaming mug of tea clasped tightly in both hands. She closed her eyes gently, making narrow slits, and her eyelids flickered as the steam from the mug spiralled upwards, moistening her face. The warmth of the ceramic permeated her palms, spreading gradually onwards towards her fingertips. A sigh escaped from her lips. It wouldn’t be clear to a casual observer whether this betrayed contentment, or relaxation. Or something else altogether.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked out. She could see clearly through the gleaming French windows. Light streamed in. It was quiet outside. Mid-morning: all the early risers had long gone, dashing off to their busy workplaces, and it wasn’t yet late enough for the spill of stay-at-home mothers and pensioners who appeared post noon.
The well-tended grass sparkled, the remnants of an early dew refracted in the light. She noticed how it was more worn down in some places than others. Why was that, she wondered? Perhaps people favoured those patches over the others when they strolled on the lawns. Or perhaps some kind of nocturnal animal came out in the dark when no one was watching and played games on precisely those places but not others. It was odd, though. She felt that the patches appeared more worn than they had yesterday, when she’d sat here gazing out in just the same way. Especially the one directly in front of her window.
She was distracted by a movement at the edge of her vision. She looked to the side to capture the cause. It was nothing but a bird, flying past and up into one of the trees at the edge of the gardens. Her eyes ran along the outline of the tree, black and jagged against the blue sky. The contrast was still sharp, but green buds were beginning to show on the tree now, she noticed, and that contrast would soon be blurred. Those buds hadn’t been there yesterday either, she was sure.
Suddenly she remembered her tea and took a slow sip, savouring the taste, letting the smoky liquid settle on her tongue for a few seconds before swallowing. Her attention now became rooted within and her eyes roamed around the room. It was all very familiar. Everything was neat and clean. She’d spent the morning blitzing the place, in fact. Brushing every last bit of dust from the floor. Polishing the antique table until it shone. She was fastidious. And yet, she didn’t feel comfortable. Something was wrong, out of place. What was it, she wondered? Her eyes roamed faster now, her heart beating a little harder. And they came to rest on the curtains hanging at the French windows. She strained to see. There! That was it! The flowers on the material had changed. They used to be dusky pink tulips. But they weren’t any longer. Now they were faces, staring out at her. Crude faces with staring eyes and mocking smiles.
Unnerved, she stood and took a few steps across the small room to the curtains, weighing the heavy fabric in her hands, inspecting it. Now she understood. It wasn’t that the tulips had been changed altogether. They were still there, their delicate forked petals slightly askew, as if blowing gently in the spring breeze. But there had been some kind of subtle transformation. If you looked at them in a certain way, from a certain angle, you could see that they had indeed been made to look like faces. What did they represent, she mused, her head on one side. It suddenly became quite clear. They were wraiths: spirits or lost souls condemned eternally to purgatory. She shivered, imagining the icy cold winds that might bear these spirits along.
A wave of cold, hard anger shot through her, almost taking her breath away. Yesterday, those tulips had been just that. Flowers decorating a fabric. Today they exhibited an entirely other dimension. A dimension that was far more sinister. And someone had made them that way. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened, either. These people were constantly interfering with her and her things. Reshaping her clothes. Spiriting away her keys or her glasses, and then bringing them back a few hours later. Making her look stupid, like she was losing her mind, when in fact she was being hounded mercilessly. In her anger, she jerked the curtain so hard that the fabric ripped, coming away from the rail above.
And then the whisperings began in her head again. She tuned in for a while, trying to make sense of them. Eventually, one of the voices asserted itself above the clamour and she listened carefully to what it had to say. Certain phrases stood out from the rest, glowing bright white in her mind.
You’re not alone.
This can’t be allowed to continue.
This is what you must do.
She nodded slowly, emphatically. Indicating her agreement. Indicating her understanding.
Much later she surfaced in unfamiliar surroundings. It looked like a hospital. All white sheets and clinical minimalism. There was a woman in the room with her. And a man. They were talking, but she didn’t understand about what. She caught snippets of their conversation. ‘Delusions of persecution.’ ‘Approached with a knife.’ ‘Auditory hallucinations.’ ‘Section 3, for the protection of others.’ But she couldn’t make any sense of the whole.
She tried to sit up in bed and the man turned to face her.
‘Hello Sarah. I’m Dr Peterson, a psychiatrist. You’ve not been well.’ All of this said while moving slowly towards her.
Psychiatrist? Not well?
It was then that realisation struck, slamming into her brain like a ten-ton truck. The people who were hounding her—this was their doing. Somehow they’d managed to persuade this psychiatrist that she was insane.
The cold, hard anger swelled up again, engulfing her. She opened her mouth and screamed.