Authors: Bill Douglas
John rushed to the front doorway and stopped, gripping the doorknob as he watched Heather speed with Becky towards the shop. He'd chase them â but no, she'd come back. God, he didn't mean to scare her like that! He slammed the door, retreated to the living room and slumped into an armchair. Thoughts rushed into his head, then faded â like some magnetic force was drawing them.
His lower back was aching. A dull ache. Yes, his underwear was sodden. He raised himself from the chair and began to strip off.
He suddenly imagined Dave, soaking and drowning. His body shook, and his eyes felt moist. Great bruv. Looked out for his âwee Johnny'.
Yesterday! He'd panicked. Why did he go anywhere near the river?
He rubbed his aching forehead, massaging it. But this didn't relieve his cluttered mind. Was he going mad?
A strain of music. Hearing things? No, it was from next door. â
'. A catchy tune, but he didn't want to hear it. Heather was always humming it. She was crazy about Elvis. Maybe âthe king' was her true love.
. The front door? But nobody ever called. Heather! He ran to the door, and flung it open.
A stranger â a startled-looking little man in a suit â gaped at him.
“John Chisholm?” The man carried a briefcase.
He heard laughter. A couple of women across the road. What the hell. “So what?”
“Can I come in?” The man was dark-haired, swarthy, and stank of Brylcreem.
“No!” He made to shut the door.
The man stuck out a foot to stop it closing. “I'm Sam Newman, the duly authorised officer for mental health.” With a smile (or a leer?), the stranger flashed a card with a photo. “I must come in and talk to you.”
Arrogant sod. “No way. I'm not mental.”
The man continued. “I've just seen your wife, and â”
“You've WHAT?” He glared at the man.
The man's face reddened. “I mean, I saw your wife at the shop over there, and from what she told me â”
her â at the shop?” The two women were laughing again.
“Yes. Oh I'd never seen her before. You'd threatened her with a knife.”
“I didn't, and it's no business of yours.”
“Ah, but it is. Look, can we talk inside?”
“NO! DAMN YOU TO HELL. SCRAM,” he yelled. He didn't hear any laughter now. He saw a policeman outside the shop â near where the women were. “You do not want to mess with me,” he added quietly.
The intruder had retracted his foot. “You need help. You can come as a voluntary patient into Springwell.”
“The loony bin? Never! Get away from here and leave me â and my wife â alone!” The house shook as he slammed the door.
He stood, his thoughts churning. Perfumed little toad! The loony bin. He'd die first. Nobody was going to lock him up with madmen.
Trembling with rage had given way to shivering. Not that his thoughts were scary; he was starkers but for his socks. No wonder those women laughed.
Galvanised, he ran up to the bedroom and searched for dry underwear and a shirt. After rummaging through drawers fruitlessly, he struck oil in the laundry bin. All niffy â but so what?
The place reeked of Heather. He inhaled deeply. He struggled to order his thoughts. She used to say she loved him, but now she had a lover? Should he go over to the shop? He couldn't face that. Would she come home? Was he still a teacher?
He was pathetic. He'd messed up. He lay back on the bed under the quilt and pulled it up over his head. Maybe he could suffocate? Scarcely. Other options for self-kill? No rope, no gun. Cutting his wrists, or drowning â both possible.
Couldn't even decide if he wanted to live or die. He curled up on the bed, half-dazed, letting images come and go. If there was an afterlife, would suicide book him into Purgatory, or Hell? Not that he cared.
He's teaching the class about Heaven and Hell. Little Jimmy nods forward, head on desk, arms asplay. Natalie shouts “Jimmy's dead” and the class start wailing. He runs over, bangs the desk with a ruler and wakes Jimmy up. The Head appears, says this isn't Geography. He confronts the Head, argues these are places and the class should know about them. The Head sits on a desk. A giant hawk blasts through the window.
He was sweating. Must have dozed off. It was dark, and thunder was splitting the house? No. Someone'd been banging on the front door. The stink of Brylcreem! Catapulting off the bed, he took the stairs three at a time. The mental man stood in the hallway.
“I'm back,” said the mental man, superfluously. “I knocked, then used the key your wife lent me.”
“What!” He approached the mental man. Could be the sod Heather was necking. “Where is she?”
“Please, I want to help you.” The mental man stepped back, and raised the briefcase belly-high. A protective weapon? “My name's Sam. Can I call you John?”
It would be easy to despatch this shit. Butâ¦ get an answer first. “Where's my wife?”
“She and your baby are resting in the back-shop. I've come in to check if you're alright.”
“I am, so you can go â Sam!”
“It's not as simple as that, John.”
Another dark-suited man magically appeared beside the mental man. “Hello, Mr Chisholm.” The mental man faded to the background as the speaker advanced and held out his hand. “John, you know me â Dr Smith.”
His GP, a sad-looking old man he hadn't seen for months. A bit worrying, all this. He ignored the proffered hand. “Why are you here?”
“Can we go into your living room, John? It's rather cramped here,” said Dr Smith. “Please, we need to talk.”
Why? But what was the harm in shifting to the living room? He could throw this pair out anyway. “Okay.” He stepped backward into the living room to allow the doctor entry. “But only you.” He motioned with his fist. The mental man stayed in the hallway.
”Mr Newman told me you're not well. I think you should go to Springwell for treatment.”
The loony bin. And this was his own doctor! He shook his head and banged it with both hands. “Never. Leave me alone. I've had enough â of you all, life, everything.” He pointed to the door. “Get out!”
The mental man had slithered forward with his briefcase. Funny, the GP tapping the man on the elbow and nodding, before scurrying out.
“You need treatment. The doctor and I agree, and I know the magistrate will too,” said the mental man, now further into the room. “If you won't come voluntarily, you'll be certified.”
“Never!” Fists clenched, he advanced on the mental man.
A figure jumped in front of him. A barrel-chested giant in uniform.
Nothing to lose. A playground scrapper from earliest schooldays, John punched the policeman solidly in the stomach, drawing a groan, and followed with a head butt. He turned to grab a chair. A tornado hit his legs. Copper number two, with a crash-tackle that smashed John against the chair and onto the floor. Prostrate on his front, his legs were being crushed. He tried to move, but his arms were pinned.
The mental man said something about an order and taking him to Springwell. Dr Smith was kneeling with a syringe.
“NO!” he yelled, and heard “yes”. Then his arm stung, and the scene faded.
Late afternoon, the mental man was shown by Mattie into the back-shop. “Here are your keys, Mrs Chisholm. Thanks. Your husband's been sedated. We're taking him to Springwell. He's being certified, and he'll be kept in.” With a “can't stop”, the mental man turned and started back through the empty shop.
“For how long?” Heather yelled. Fear for her and Becky was now uppermost. The image of John with the knife, and that look on his face, were both scary. What if this mental man was wrong, and John came straight back?
The mental man paused, half turned and shouted. “A long time. Sorry, have to rush.” And he disappeared.
Her questions would have to wait. In any case, Becky claimed her attention by waking and starting to whimper.
“You shouldn't go back to that house on your own tonight, m'dear,” Elsie said, and Mattie added, “We want to see you and the bairn safe.”
A welcome offer. “I'll need Becky's crib and a few other things.”
“Aye, you go over the road and leave the bairn with me,” suggested Elsie.
“I'll come and give you a hand with the crib,” said Mattie.
Heather walked briskly across the road, followed by Mattie. She unlocked the door and remembered as she pressed the switch. Electric light had seemed a blessing â much brighter than the old gas mantle. But it broke down more often, and they'd had to learn about fuses and switchboxes.
She was glad of Mattie's presence â and the shaft of street lighting â as she walked through the hallway.
The living-room door was ajar and she entered, switching the light on. “Oh my!” she cried. One of the hard-backed chairs lay askew on the floor.
“He's no' gone without a fight.” Mattie pointed to dark red blotches, highly visible on the pale blue carpet. He picked up the chair and righted it.
Those large bloodstains! Her new carpet ruined. And John must have been hurt. She'd never seen him fight. He was a peacemaker and tried to avoid conflict. But something was wrong with him. And he'd told her about tackling bullies at school. Yes, surely he could fight, and obviously had done here. “No!” she cried, as it struck her. Could this be someone else's blood? Had he used the knife?
“Do you need to sit down, lass?” Mattie drew out a chair from the table.
“No thanks.” Back in action mode, she returned to why she was here. “Can you help get Becky's crib down, Mattie?”
They went up and carried the wooden crib downstairs.
“I'll manage fine on my own now,” said Mattie.
“I've a few other bits and pieces to get. You go back to Elsie and Becky. I'll join you soon.” She watched Mattie lift the crib with one hand, and with his other manage the front door. He was strong for a man that looked three-score plus.
She closed the door behind him and put the snib on to lock it. She stepped quickly through the living room, navigating obstacles while avoiding looking at the bloodstains, and ran upstairs.
She set about gathering things she and Becky would need. Quite a list, even for one night. Looking for her nightdress, she spied John's pyjamas. The same pair from their honeymoon, a million years ago. She picked them up and clutched them to her face, savouring the taste and his unique smell. The sex that was magic had been âno go' for her, for so long. And when suddenly she fancied it, he spurned her. That hurt. And at Easter she'd turned him away. If only!
She was welling up. She'd tried to make his birthday special, but failed to lift him from his misery. And he came home deranged and aggressive.
All their life together he'd had spells of brooding. She recalled the time they first met. After a packed Students' Union debate on âCan War Be Just?' â when he'd argued passionately against the motion she was defending â he'd sought her out.
“Fancy a drink downstairs, Heather?”
Steely blue eyes, hair the colour of corn, and smiling rugged features. Instant magnetism. “Yes.”
Sitting in the S.U. bar, ready to continue debating, she was surprised by his opening: “Any brothers or sisters?”
“No, I'm an only child. Spoiled. You?”
His expression darkened. “I had a big brother.” Then, waving his hands around, he poured out the story.
She'd felt moved by the tragic tale. Subsequently, she could recognise that melancholy look; and always his brooding was about Dave. He'd kept going on about it â so repetitively that she'd stopped listening.
But this was different from past tragedy, or stress at work. More sinister. Accusing her, banging on their tableâ¦? Maybe he had gone mad.
She threw herself on the bed and sobbed into the pillow. John, her beloved husband and sweetheart, her champion, was in the loony bin. Maybe forever.
She sat up and dried her face. The suitcase. Heavens, Mattie and Elsie would be wondering what had happened to her. And Becky?
She scrambled off the bed, stuffed her suitcase, flew downstairs and over to the shop. The shutters were down, and she knocked on the door next it.
“The bairn's near asleep,” Mattie whispered, and closed the door softly behind her. He led her upstairs and stood aside to motion her into a room.
Elsie sat in an armchair, cradling Becky, rocking her gently and humming.
Heather whispered “Hello.” She'd stay out of the picture and let Becky fall asleep. But the infant jerked up to look towards her and started crying.
“You have the bairn, m'dear.”
The infant cuddled in close. This was stirring something in Heather â joy, fulfilment as a mother. Affirmation, at a time she needed a boost â and a sensation that would help sustain her through the nigh-sleepless hours ahead.
The rich aroma needed action. Holding Becky with one arm, she got a nappy from the case, while Elsie went to fill the nappy bucket with water and steriliser.
“Put the bairn there, m'dear.” Elsie pointed at the settee, laying out a sheet.
“Thanks.” She laid Becky on the settee and removed the sodden and hugely soiled cloth â inhaling the odour. This aroma in nappy changing was special, a perfume only Becky could produce.
“I'll put the mess down the lav,” said Elsie, disappearing with the soiled nappy and returning to drop it in the nappy bucket.
Heather put the fresh nappy on and reached for the safety pin. Her eyes blurred. That evening she'd come home from hospital, exhausted. John nuzzled Becky, then held the babe in the air. “She pongs. I'll sort it â been practising for this.” He put the clean nappy on correctly, then yelled “Ouch,” drew back and sucked his bloodied thumb. He laughed. “Practice didn't include a safety pin.” He completed the task, then hugged her close. She couldn't manage a smile. But she wouldn't be alone in caring for their baby. He'd be a brilliant dad. And so he had been.
“What's up, m'dear?”
She brushed her sleeve over her cheeks. She didn't want to talk about this. “Nothing.” Forcing a smile, she picked up Becky and dandled her in front of Elsie.
“Mattie'll get fish and chips for tea,” said Elsie. “What would you like, m'dear?”
Such kindness. She nuzzled her face into Becky's midriff to wipe her own eyes. “Thanks, but I couldn't eat anything.” True â the bile was in her stomach. “I'm tired. I'll feed Becky, then go to bed, if that's okay.”
Elsie nodded. “M'dear, that makes sense to me.”
Heather cajoled Becky into swallowing a few spoonfuls, then followed Elsie to the dimly lit âspare room'. Warmer than expected, thanks to a one-bar electric fire.
Elsie whispered, “If you need anything in the night, give us a shout. We're in the room over the landing. Night-night and God bless.”
In the crib sat a teddy with large brown eyes and outstretched arms. How thoughtful of Elsie. She lowered Becky gently into the crib. “Teddy,” she whispered, holding up the bear. “Becky â nice cuddle.” Her child clasped the teddy and lay hugging it.
She sat on the bed alongside the crib, crooning softly until, surprisingly (as teething had been a problem lately), Becky dozed off.
Heather slipped into bed. The soft mattress, well sprung, unlike their aging second-hand one, felt warm. Yes, a hot-water-bottle.
She was being treated like a favourite daughter, the prodigal returning. She'd known the pair only through her shopping, and now they were her best friends.
She lay awake. Was John mad? Would he get better? Would he be tormented by lunatics? Would he be cooped up forever? She didn't hear of people coming out of there. Was this the end for their relationship â how could she and her beloved ever be the same? What of Becky's future â with a lunatic father? And if he did come home, how could he keep his job after being branded a loony? How would she meet the bills? John's pay wasn't great, but it paid the mortgage. Would his pay stop now?
Her world was collapsing. Her parents! At least they had money â with Father an ex-bank manager. Only fifty miles away, but they hadn't visited for ages.
If only she could rewind to before that fateful evening â two years ago â when she took John to meet her parents. It was okay at first, though uneasy, stilted.
Mother saying, with obvious admiration, “First class honours indeed,” and John blushing, staying silent.
Father's opening salvo: “What does your old man do?”
John's: “Old man? You mean my da â he's dead. He worked as a miner.”
Silence, Mother glancing at Father, then saying, “Oh dear, what did he die of?”
John's: “Lost both legs when a tunnel collapsed down the mine. He was stuck in the house, in a wheelchair, and died of a thrombosis a couple of years on.”
Mother's: “Oh dear â and your mother?”
John's: “My ma took on three jobs slaving for filthy rich families. She died of overwork.”
Silence, then Father's: “I'll uncork the wine.”
John never drank wine. But after his second refill, Mother's: “What about your religious belief, John?”
John's: “I'm with Karl Marx. Religion is the opium of the people.” Her lapsed Catholic fiancÃ© â saying something that went down fine in the Students' Union.
A cooling in the atmosphere, as her churchgoing parents exchanged glances.
John's continuing with pronouncements in similar vein, raising his voice. She trying vainly to help him modify his comments, lighten the tone.
Her parents wouldn't want him for a son-in-law! An atheist and a socialist?
And Mother's penned âwe decline' to their registry wedding invitation â âSorry darling, we'll be abroad' â radiated with unspoken vibes. Vibes whispered in her ear by Mother later that evening. “Uncouth, not good enough for you, darling.”
They'd come once since Becky's birth. When she was sunk in misery, not up to talking much. When silent unease between husband and parents screamed at her.
But this was a desperate time. Surely they'd rally to help their daughter and grandchild? She'd ask Mattie in the morning if she could ring from the shop.