No More of That
by Martin Westlake
“O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;|
No more of that.”
— King Lear, III, 4
It started shortly after I had been promoted. I had discussed the prospect at length with Anna. She was fiercely independent in spirit but the physical reality — she had long been confined to a wheelchair after a riding accident — limited her, nevertheless. She would have to spend more time on her own. But when I told her that this was almost certainly my only chance, she understood. Finally, Anna agreed that I should apply.
I got the job and soon realised that I’d have to change my habits. I started jogging, lost some weight, joined a gym and bought myself a new wardrobe. Anna got jealous. She suspected I was seeing someone, though I think she believed me when I explained.
In middle management, nobody cares too much about your appearance; you have to get on with the job. But when you become a director, you have to set an example. If you want to do your job well, you have to motivate all those cynical, grouchy middle managers, and I wanted to do my job well. For I was still just young enough to aim for a position on the board, a perfect way to round off my career.
Anna understood and gradually got used to the new me. And then it started.
It was a Saturday morning. I had a quick shower and came back into our bedroom. Anna had got into her chair and was waiting for me by the bed. She asked me if I had noticed anything strange. I said I hadn’t. She pointed to a pair of my socks, rolled into one, on the carpet. ‘Where did they come from?’
‘Sorry,’ I replied. ‘I must have dropped them.’
‘You did drop them,’ she said, ‘but that was last night, and I put them in your drawer. Now they’re back where they were.’
‘Sorry. I must have dropped them again.’
‘In exactly the same place?’
This was strange. She looked angry. I tried humour. ‘I pity the poltergeist that feels it has to play around with my socks!’
It worked. Anna laughed. The incident was over.
The rest of the weekend went well except that on Sunday evening there was another incident. We had had an early supper and planned to watch a film. Anna took our plates to the kitchen whilst I prepared the film. She called me. I could hear the tension in her voice.
‘What is it?’
‘Please come out here for a moment.’
When I walked into the kitchen, she was parked in front of the open dishwasher.
‘What is it?’
‘See those plates?’
‘Whose are they?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that I emptied the dishwasher completely after lunch. Have you used any plates since then?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘So, what are those plates doing there?’
‘Maybe I did use some plates and have forgotten about it. Does it matter?’
‘Yes, it does matter. Something strange is going on.’
I picked up one of the plates. It was clean. ‘I think you just forgot the last few. We’re getting old and forgetful; that’s all that’s going on.’
‘Maybe.’ She put our plates and cutlery in the machine, then joined me in the living room. Half an hour later we were absorbed by the film. The incident was forgotten.
* * *
I got back very late on the Monday evening. It had been a hell of a day. Two of my line managers had got into a silly dispute. I took the troublemaker out for a drink to talk things through. When I got home, Anna had a very dark look on her face.
‘You could have called,’ she said.
‘You are right, and I apologise unreservedly.’ I explained the horrible situation to her. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘I realise that part of this job is like being a psychologist. I kept thinking I was about to get away, and then the guy would go off on yet another rant.’
I took a microwave meal out of the freezer and poured myself a beer. Anna joined me at the kitchen table. The dark look was still on her face.
‘Your socks came back,’ she said.
‘Your socks. They reappeared in exactly the same place, after you’d gone.’
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’
‘Of course I do!’
‘Well, then, you don’t care, at least. I am going to bed.’
I listened to the news on the radio and then came up to bed. She was asleep.
* * *
That month the job got hellish. One of our markets had been shrinking for several years. The board decided the trend required a structural solution. I had lived through such restructurings several times as a worker and middle manager. Now, I had to implement one. We tried to limit the brutality but inevitably some jobs had to go, and it fell to me to tell the unfortunate colleagues. It was draining. By the time I had seen the last ‘victim,’ I was physically and morally exhausted.
Increasingly, I wondered what sort of Anna I would meet when I got home. Sometimes she was perfectly normal, the Anna I had known for almost twenty-six years. But incidents had started to occur more frequently. The socks and the plates were followed by questions as to whether doors had been shut and even about the apparently changed position of the clock on the mantelpiece.
Then she found an explanation. ‘If you are not doing it, then somebody else must be,’ she told me.
‘Come on! You are imagining things.’
‘I am not imagining anything. Everything I have told you is true.’
‘Do you honestly think somebody is coming into our house and shifting socks and plates and doors and clocks and things?’
‘Yes,’ she told me flatly. I could see she truly believed this.
* * *
The situation did not improve. One Saturday morning, about six weeks after the first ‘sock’ incident, as I was eating breakfast, Anna called me from the living room.
‘Come,’ she ordered.
She had wheeled over to the French windows. Our bungalow was on a slight hill. From our living room we had a view over our neighbours’ gardens and the road beyond.
‘What is it?’
She put a finger to her lips. ‘Come here, but don’t move the net curtains.’
‘What is it?’ I repeated.
‘Don’t you see him?’ she asked.
‘That man in his car.’
I looked up and down the street. In the end, I did see a man in a car.
‘Yes,’ I told her, ‘I see him.’
‘It’s not the first time,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not the first time I have seen that car there. And sometimes that man is in it.’
‘Hang on a moment. Why shouldn’t a car with a man be there? What if he’s a neighbour?’
‘I don’t recognise the car and why does he always stay in his car?’
‘Now come on, Anna! How many times have I sat in our car to listen to the end of a news bulletin or an interesting programme or a piece of music?’
‘I tell you,’ she said, ‘he stays in his car and he is watching us.’
‘I don’t know. He sits there and stares at our house.’
‘If he parks there because that is his habitual parking space, then of course he will seem to be looking at our house. But that doesn’t mean that he is deliberately looking at us, does it?’
‘To my mind, yes.’
Anna stuck to her story. I went back to my breakfast, but the incident unsettled our whole weekend.
The next episode was more difficult. I was in the middle of an office crisis. We had an unspoken rule: Anna very rarely called at work. If she did, it was because there was a genuine crisis of some sort. When my PA told me that Anna was on the line about something ‘urgent,’ I immediately halted my meeting.
‘What’s up, Anna?’
‘There’s somebody in the house.’
‘In our bedroom.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘I believe you. It’s just that I have come out of a meeting—’
‘Your meeting is more important than my safety?’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
‘Then please come.’
She was on the edge of tears. I raced home.
‘Thank God,’ she said, opening the front door. ‘He’s still in the house.’
‘The prowler. You know; the man who keeps moving your socks.’
‘I know. You don’t believe me. But you’ll change your mind when you go to our room.’
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘let’s go and see.’
I fetched out a gardening fork from the garage then crept up to the bedroom door. I really should have called the police but, if there were nobody there, then we would have looked stupid. I knocked. ‘Anybody there?’
‘Is there somebody there?’ I repeated.
I opened the door. ‘You see?’ I said. ‘Nobody.’
You would have thought that Anna would have accepted that she had indeed been imagining things but, no. ‘He must have got away,’ she said.
But she had wheeled over to the living room window. ‘You see,’ she said, pointing, ‘he’s back in his car.’
The car she had previously identified was parked in the same place. The driver was sitting inside.
It seemed that once somebody started to become paranoid, everything could be roped in to ‘prove’ that person’s belief. This was what was happening to Anna. She definitely needed to see someone. I waited until we had finished our evening meal. We discussed the news. A pop star had been found dead, and the media had started speculating. Finally, I felt an appropriate moment had arrived.
‘Anna, you know these things that have been happening?’
‘You mean the stalker?’
‘Well, I mean the things that make you think there might be a stalker.’
‘I don’t care whether you believe me. I know. There is a stalker.’
‘I was thinking that maybe we could go and see someone.’
‘A specialist. Somebody who could help you.’
‘What do you mean, ‘help me’?’
‘I don’t know. Somebody who could help you to see that maybe, just maybe, you are imagining things.’
‘I am not imagining things!’
The discussion went downhill. In the end, I told her that even if she wouldn’t come with me I, at least, was going to see somebody.
* * *
Our General Practitioner gave me the name of a reputable psychologist. Just two weeks later, I was in her office. I described what had been happening, culminating in the man in the bedroom. She listened attentively and took detailed notes. When I had finished she asked me some questions. Then she put down her pen.
‘I cannot make any sort of diagnosis until I have seen your wife for myself,’ she said.
‘What would you advise?’
‘If you can get her to come to me, then I can help her. The question is how to convince her to come. On the basis of what you have told me, it is not going to be easy. Sometimes, a change of scenery helps. Why don’t you take her away on holiday somewhere and then talk to her?’
* * *
That evening I proposed to Anna that we should go away together. She was enthusiastic. I negotiated — not without difficulty — a short absence with my colleagues and booked a week in a well-equipped country cottage near the coast. The holiday was a success. The fresh air and change of scenery did us both good. There were no incidents. Halfway into the holiday, I told her about my visit to the psychologist. Anna listened, at first with interest, and then with anger.
‘There is nothing wrong with me,’ she growled.
It was as difficult as the psychologist had warned it would be. But the next day I hit on a potential solution. What if I concentrated on the other aspects of her condition? That evening I brought up the subject again.
‘I am sorry for yesterday evening,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that I sensed you were unhappy and I wanted to try and help you.’
‘There’s no point in going over old ground.’
‘I’m sorry, Anna; that’s all.’
She was silent for a moment and then the floodgates opened. ‘I have been so lonely; so very lonely.’
‘You can have no idea. Cooped up in the bungalow all day alone, with nobody there from morning to night.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s not your fault. I understand, I really do. It wouldn’t be fair for you not to have your chance of getting on.’
‘It’s never too late, Anna. I could stand down if you’d like.’
‘I can’t ask you to do that. It’s me. I have got to change somehow. I have got to change my attitude, be more upbeat and outward-looking.’
‘Why don’t you come and see the psychologist?’
‘I am not suffering from paranoid delusions.’
‘Not that, but all the rest: the worry, the loneliness... Let’s face it: you’re suffering from a spot of depression, aren’t you?’
‘I don’t know what’s happening to me. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s this stalker...’
I sensed that she had quietly accepted the idea. Sure enough, as we were driving back home at the end of the week, she spontaneously brought up the subject of the psychologist. ‘I wouldn’t mind seeing her,’ she said.
I promised I would call as soon as possible.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Martin Westlake