WHEN HOWARD spoke again his voice sounded weak and imploring. Yet another dramatic swing of mood.
“Gail,” he said, “Can you hear me?’ She didn’t answer. “Help me, Gail. Please help me.” She wanted him to go away. “I love you, Gail. You know that, don’t you?” It was more than she could bear. She covered her ears for some seconds, and then uncovered them to see if he had stopped talking. He hadn’t. “I’m so alone without you. I need you. We need each other. We can help one another.” His voice slowly got louder and more confident, to the point where, however hard she tried to block the words out, she couldn’t stop herself from hearing his pleas.
“I wish things could be like they used to be. Do you remember? Do you remember the day when we first met? When I opened the door for you? It was freezing outside. You had that huge, red scarf wrapped round your head. I hardly knew it was you.” He laughed. Gail stuffed her knuckles into her mouth and bit hard on them. “I’d been wanting to get to know you for ages, then there you were before my eyes, just like I’d predicted. Gift wrapped.” The pain of memory mingled with confusion. Why couldn’t he understand she didn’t want to hear this? At the same, she couldn’t resist listening. “I’d been trying to pluck up the courage to talk to you from the first time I ever saw you. But you made me feel so painfully shy. I think I fell in love with you as soon as I set eyes on you.” Her eyes began to blur with unshed tears till they flooded, then overflowed, streaming down her cheeks, over her knuckles, and into her mouth, filling it with their warm, wet saltiness. “I remember that rush to my head, after I thought a girl like would never want someone like me. Then when you ‘yes’ to coffee it felt as if I was going to lift off. Like a rocket, right there and then. You seemed so beautiful and full of confidence. You made me feel clumsy and unsophisticated.”
She took her fist from her mouth.
“I wasn’t,” she croaked in a low voice, even though she knew he was leading her down a path she shouldn’t go again. She had to keep a clear head and think of a means to excape.
“I wasn’t confident,” she said a little louder. “And I certainly didn’t feel sophisticated.
“What? I can’t hear you properly. Where are you?”
“I’m sitting by the bath,” she said, raising her voice a little.
“I still can’t make out what you’re saying properly. You’re sitting where?”
She lifted her head, and called across the room.
“By the bath.” Then she sniffed. “I’m crouched down by the bath. I feel so silly sitting down here by the bath tub.” She giggled in spite of herself. “You frightened me, Howard.” Perhaps she shouldn’t give too much away.
“Come over to the door,” Howard said. “I’ll be able to hear you better by the door.”
“No,” she said, “you’ll only try and break it down again.”
“I won’t, I promise I won’t. I was angry with you then. I’m sorry, I won’t do it again. I just want us to be nearer to each other.”
Even though she knew she could no longer trust him, she seemed unable to prevent herself from talking to him. They had been so close and so intimate. That was a different time and an altogether different Howard. Yet, if she thought about it, even then there had been signs something was wrong. Small things. But she became so infatuated with him she’d chosen to ignore them.
“All right.” She got to her feet. He’d tried to commit suicide, that alone should’ve told her something.
“I said, all right, I’m coming over to the door.” She walked cautiously across to the door and sat down about a foot away from it. Seeing how stout it was, he’d have difficulty break it down. Nevertheless, she looked for something to use as a weapon, should he try and succeed. There was nothing.
“I was so stoned that day,” he said.
“Stoned? I never knew that before.”
“I’d just had a joint. I didn’t want to tell you just in case you didn’t approve of smoking dope.”
“I should have known. I remember looking in your eyes and thinking there was something unusual about them. You rat! You never gave me any.” She smiled as she said it. She’d heard of an student at Brighton, who’d spent his days smoking hash and dropping acid. One day he jumped off the cliffs at Newhaven. Someone told her too many drugs could trigger schizophrenia. She didn’t believe it. She didn’t want to believe it. Howard couldn’t be schizophrenic. No way. But, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t think of any other explanation for his increasingly erratic behaviour. If only she’d taken more notice, it’d been there from the beginning. At that time she only saw it as an endearing eccentricity.
“I didn’t know you smoked then.”
“I didn’t, but I was dying to try some.”
“I didn’t dare let you know because I thought it might’ve put you off me.” He seemed so rational now. Maybe she was the one going insane.
“I would have liked you even more, you silly goat. If that was possible. Couldn’t you tell? I was besotted by you. You could’ve done anything to me, and I would’ve let you. I did. We went to bed that very first day. Remember? I’d never done that with anyone before.”
There followed an awkward pause. Perhaps she was getting too intimate.
“Where are you now?” he asked.
“I’m on the other side of the door,” she said.
“Are you sitting down?”
She crawled closer to the door. Leaning her back on it she said:
“I’m leaning with my back against the door.”
“My shoulder’s on the other side,” he said, “so we’re almost touching.” The realisation made her straighten up abruptly, so that her back was no longer in contact with the door. “We shouldn’t let a door come between us, Gail. Not after all we’ve been through together.”
“I’m scared,” she said quietly.
“I can’t hear you.”
“I’m scared, Howard. I don’t know what you’re going to do, anymore.”
“Don’t be scared,” Howard implored her. “I’m nothing to be scared of. Please don’t be scared, Gail. There’s only you and me here. We’re nothing to be scared of.”
She said nothing.
“Gail?’ he called, “Are you still there?”
“Of course.” She spoke softly, almost as if she was talking to herself.
“I can’t hear you again.”
“Of course I’m still here,” she said more loudly. “Where else would I be?”
Another awkward silence. She was beginning to find something strangely embarrassing about the situation. It was Howard to broke the silence again. She was perplexed. How could anyone sound so normal one minute, and so crazy the next?
“Do you forgive me?” he asked timidly. Though the interlude that followed the question was so short as to be virtually unnoticeable, it was far more significant than the answer she gave.
“Yes,” she said wearily, “I forgive you.” But in reality she didn’t know if she’d be able to forgive, or trust him, ever again. There followed yet another pause. The strain was almost palpable.
“You don’t love me anymore, do you?” Once again she didn’t answer immediately. And before she could, he went on, “I don’t blame you, I’m not worth it.”
“Don’t say that, Howard. You mustn’t think like that.”
“But I’m not, or you would. And you don’t.”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t say anything, and that amounts to the same thing. If you loved me, you would’ve said so.”
“I have said so, many times.”
“But not now.”
“This is hardly the time, or the place. Look at us, you on one side of the door and me on the other. How can I talk about love when we’re like this? You wouldn’t let me out of the house, Howard. Or have you forgotten?”
“If you loved me, you’d help me.”
“I want to help you, but I can’t. I think you should see someone.”
“You won’t even open the door. If you wanted to help me, you’d open the door to be here with me. Then we could talk about seeing someone.”
“I am with you. We’re talking, aren’t we?”
“But you’ve locked me out.”
“For heaven’s sake, I haven’t locked you out. I’ve locked myself in.” The irony of the fact she was using the same argument he’d used the previous evening didn’t escape her.
“Why, Gail? I don’t understand why. You’ve changed, I don’t know you anymore. You’ve become so hard, so aggressive. You used to be so kind. I could always talk to you.” He began to wail. “It’s because you don’t love me anymore, isn’t it? You don’t think I’m good enough for you, do you?”
The words came out unconvincingly slowly.
“I do love you.” In that instant, she knew she no longer did.
“No, you don’t. I know you don’t. I can hear it in your voice.” He was crying unashamedly. She couldn’t bear it.
“Howard,” she said. He seemed unable to hear her above the sounds of his own sobs. “Howard,” she persisted, “Howard, if I open the door, will you promise not to do anything, and let me out of this place?”
“Of course I won’t do anything,” he snivelled.
“But will you promise?”
“I won’t do anything, I’ve told you I won’t. What would I do?”
“That you won’t do anything. And you’ll let me out.”
“I’ve already said I won’t.”
“You’ve got to say the words, Howard. You have to promise.”
“All right,” he said, “if that’s what it takes, I promise I won’t do anything.”
“To harm me.”
“To harm you.”
“And you’ll let me out. No more silliness.”
“Yes, I promise I’ll let you out.”
“Drop the knife then.”
“Okay,” he said. And then: “I’ve dropped it.”
“No you haven’t, Howard I didn’t hear it.” She heard the knife clang onto the wood floor. “I have now,” he said.
“Now move away from the door.” She got to her feet. “Have you moved away yet?” she asked, both her hands on the chair rail. To give herself time to slam the door shut if need be, he’d have to be as far away from it as possible. Yet the thought of him injuring her with the knife was starting to seem ridiculous. She had never seen him use violence.
“Yes.” Howard replied sullenly. And she could tell by the sound of his voice he must be a few feet away from it.
Moving the chair aside, she slipped the bolt back, and turned the doorhandle. The door a fraction, and she peered through the crack into the murkiness beyond. Over in the shadows she could dimly make out Howard’s silhouette standing by the banisters. He had two sheets draped across his right arm.
“Where’s the knife?” she demanded. “You said you’d dropped it by the door.
“The knife, Howard. This is no time to mess around. You promised, remember?” He showed her his left hand. It was empty. “What about your other hand?” she asked. “You picked it up again didn’t you?” He held up the sheets. “Come on, Howard, under the sheets. What about under the sheets?”
Removing the sheets, one at a time, and dropping them onto the floor, revealed he was still holding the knife. But in the palm of his hand, the blade pointing innocuously inwards. It looked so harmless, held like that. Exactly what it was, in fact: an ordinary meat knife. The sort that could be found in countless kitchen drawers up and down the country. Though appearing somewhat smaller held in that fashion, it was still a nasty, little thing that could so easily be used for sticking into people.
“Now, put it on the floor. I’m not coming out until you put it on the floor,” adding swiftly, so he would not move too quick and startle her. “Do it slowly, so I can see you.”
Bending at the knee, he lowered himself gradually to the floor, his eyes fixed on hers. When he was able to touch it with his fingertips, he let the knife gently slip from his palm, onto the bare floorboards. And then raised himself up again.
“Kick it over here,” she ordered. He did as he was told and sent the knife skidding across the floor. Reaching an arm out, she bent down to pick it up. In that moment he leapt across the landing giving only giving her time to slam, but not bolt and lock the door. She put her shoulder to it, but wasn’t able to hold it closed, and reach for the bolt or the key at the same time. With his weight and shoulder to the door she stood no chance. Finally, he barged at it, sending her sprawling across the lino floor. She caught a glint in his eyes. How cold they had become. Then her head hit the side of the cast iron bath and the lights went out.
← Chapter 1 Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming