The ceiling fan agonised him with its constant rhythmic squeak, a grating cry which kept perfect time with its desultory rotation. He had no choice but to put up with it, day in and day out scouring the inside of his mind. He’d lain bed-ridden in this room for close on eighteen months now. To him, those months seemed like years. The more time passed, the slower it crawled by.
Each day’s unchanging routine seemed to endure for a week. What was the high point of his day? It was hard to tell really. Was it the indignity of being fed? Or was it being rolled from his side onto his back, then later onto the other side? “Must avoid pressure sores,” he was told. No, there were many worse indignities than those two.
This room had become his world. By now he knew every crack in the ceiling, like he knew every other trivial detail of his involuntary prison. Having no choice, he’d studied every nuance of the daily progress of the room’s shadows across the floor and up the walls.
Today the room was becoming distinctly chilly as evening was marked by the final stages of that progress. Despite the chill, Ellen didn’t come to turn off that shrieking fan. Yet another sign that she was tired of caring for him.
Every day, the same things preyed on his mind, doubts and regrets swarming around as he lay there immobile. He often felt the stroke was his own fault. He’d ignored the warning signs, told himself he was too young for them to mean anything. He’d ignored the dizzy spells, the black spots in front of his vision, and all the rest of it. The price of that carelessness weighed on him every day, just one of the negative thoughts which were his constant companions.
Things had changed a lot over his eighteen months in bed. They’d not changed for the better. At first, the doctors had all been confident of swift improvement; confident that they’d have him talking, maybe even up and moving about in short order. Warren, his physiotherapist used to fill the room with optimistic enthusiasm every time he called.
As the months wore on, the doctors’ faces spoke ever more of the waning of their confidence. He couldn’t blame them. He knew that they had to devote their time to patients who might actually benefit from it. Even the optimistic Warren’s efforts had degenerated into an empty routine, quite literally going through the motions. Michael had come to accept that there wouldn’t be any improvement in his condition; the stroke had left him trapped for life.
He made an effort not to be bitter. After all, the stroke wasn’t just a prison sentence for him. It was a sentence for Ellen too. He suspected they’d been on the verge of splitting up, their marriage all but dead, when it had happened. Now she was stuck looking after him for the rest of his life. He was practically helpless; couldn’t do more than lie on his back and move his head a little from side to side. With no movement in either body or limbs he could roll his eyes a little and open and close his eyelids. That was it, the full extent of his abilities. Speech eluded him. With terrible effort he could manage a gurgling noise in his throat.
Yet the worst of his situation was that his mind remained painfully clear and active. Before it happened he’d been a writer at the height of his career. Now he was left with a mind full of ideas, alive with thoughts and worries, but had no outlet. He felt like a bottle about to burst, but knew that blessed release to be impossible. He’d decided that he wouldn’t give up on life though. That was the coward’s way. Besides, there was no point in thinking of suicide; he had no way to end it even if he wanted to. He couldn’t even beg Ellen to do it for him.
Ellen’s life had become as much a grinding routine as his. She fed him, washed him, and changed his pyjamas and his bedclothes. She massaged his slack muscles, and did a hundred more intimate things. She did all this was for a man whom she’d stopped loving.
That was why he told himself he shouldn’t mind about the men. There could be no happiness in his life. Ellen deserved whatever joy she could find.
When Ellen wasn’t with him, he had nothing to do but listen. He listened to the radio that she sometimes left on. He listened to every tiny household noise. His ears always strained for sounds of Ellen moving about the house, for any hint of her voice. She may have stopped loving him, but for Michael she meant everything now.
That was how he found out about the men. It came as a gradual realisation, a picture assembling itself piece by piece in his mind. To start with, muffled conversation told him when there were visitors in the house. He’d simply been glad that Ellen had some company. Gradually it came to him that all of Ellen’s visitors were male. Often those half heard conversations continued long into the evening. At first she’d tried to be discreet, and done her best to conduct her new social life without disturbing him. Later, she seemed to give up the effort.
As much as he wished they wouldn’t, the half-heard conversations preyed on his mind. Somehow, the men’s words never stayed with him but phrases in Ellen’s voice kept floating to the surface of his mind. At first he’d heard about Ellen’s worries. “I suppose the husband I knew is in there somewhere, but he’s just like… a vegetable now”
This was bad enough for Michael, but some of her utterances were far more worrying. “I don’t know how I can keep on going like this.” More definitely and more dreadfully Michael recalled: “I can’t cope, I just can’t go any longer. I have to do something.”
To Michael, trapped and helpless, some of what he heard was utterly terrifying: “I’ve just got to get away from him, somehow.”
Ellen’s words swarmed round to prey on Michael’s beleaguered mind, as he lay immobile in bed at a loss for any other distraction. Every time Ellen said something that frightened him Michael felt steel bands tighten about his chest. His world was a miserable prison, but any change could only be so much worse. His breath would still within him as he listened helplessly. Each time the implied threat in Ellen’s words was a little stronger. Each time the shock to his mind and to his infirm body was a little greater. Each time he had a moment of stunned agony worse than those which had come before.
He heard more and more conversations. It was always Ellen and various men whispering to each other. The words often seemed to progress from Ellen’s unhappy situation to an exchange of tender endearments and promises.
Worse came in time. Sometimes, he was sure he heard Ellen and some of the men together in the bedroom at the other end of the corridor. That bedroom used to be his; his and Ellen’s. Still he wouldn’t give in to resentment. It was only fair that Ellen had a life of her own. His sentence was complete with no chance of remission. Ellen’s didn’t have to be. He told himself again that there was no injustice in his present situation, told himself that Ellen had done more than the right thing by him.
Sometimes Michael wondered at his state of mind; at how much damage the stroke had actually done. He couldn’t remember specific events any more. He recalled and understood everything as slowly accumulated impressions. That was why it took him a while to notice that one voice cropped up among Ellen’s men more and more often.
Other impressions built up in his mind too. Warren’s treatment of Michael had become more and more perfunctory. Their physiotherapy sessions seemed briefer each time. Despite this Warren was in the house more and more often, always talking with Ellen. Unlike the others, it seemed he didn’t even try to whisper. He heard their relationship blossoming, taking on form and permanency. This gave Michael something else to brood over. Ellen’s socialising was one thing. A new relationship meant he might not have Ellen to care for him anymore. In time, Michael noticed furtive rustlings and other intimate noises.
Michael wished he had some outlet for his thoughts. He knew that the lack of any outlet made him brood made him get every idea out of proportion. Yet he couldn’t stop brooding over the things that he heard; couldn’t stop straining to listen. Sometimes it seemed he could hear Ellen and Warren’s conversations more clearly than at others. Tonight he heard them especially clearly. They seemed to be discussing the future; their future.
He heard Ellen’s voice: “I think it’s all we can do … I can do. I’ve known for ages that can’t go on like this. He and I were over before the stroke. I just about had my bags packed. I’ve done what I can for him, all I can for him, but I’ve got to get out … somehow.”
Warren answered her; almost seeming to try and talk her out of whatever she was planning. “I know how you feel; it’s not fair that you’re stuck with him. But … it’s just … I’m not sure you’ll be able to live with yourself if you go through with it. I don’t know how you’ll cope afterwards.”
Clearly Ellen didn’t want to listen. “Lover, you know I’ve thought about it for ages, tried to find another way. But there isn’t one. Not one that leaves us this house, leaves us his life insurance money. We need the house and the money. And I’m owed something for all I’ve done.”
Michael was both absorbed and petrified by this the conversation. Warren confirmed his worst fears all too terribly: “But, it’s murder love. How will you cope … afterwards?”
Michael, unable to respond in any way, was forced to lie there and listen to Ellen’s unrestrained flood of emotion. His world, miserable barren place that it was, shattered about him. His heartbeat, normally a constant all too audible punctuation to his dragging days, stilled. For long agonising moments he couldn’t draw breath. “Look, we’ve been over this time after time. I need to be rid of him. We want to be together. We need the money. It isn’t fair that I’m stuck with him. There’s no other way to do it! If you haven’t got the stomach for it, get out while I do it. Just promise me you’ll come back when it’s done. I can cope with it, but only if I’ve got you with me. Otherwise it’s all for nothing. Now go … go from here. But come back in the morning, please come back, please my love!”
Michael was stunned. The evening sun shone its amber light into the room through a Venetian blind. The rays formed stripes on the nylon carpet. It was a pattern he saw every evening. Tonight he wondered if he was seeing it for the last time. He stared blankly at the pattern of light, trying to come to terms with what he had overheard.
Had it all been some terrible daydream? He often lost track of the days now, every one being identical to every other. He feared that many of his memories were constructed out of a jumble of fractured events run together. Had the dreadful conversation really happened at all? Had his mind manufactured it?
That would be it; he’d dreamt the whole thing. It was just a product of his poor afflicted mind, as was his jealousy of Ellen and Warren. Had he also dreamt the intimacy between them? Of course Ellen just didn’t have the makings of a murderer. It was ridiculous; she’d nursed him day by day for eighteen months now. She may not love him but she couldn’t be capable of killing him. What he’d overheard was just a nightmare manufactured by his own injured mind. He told himself all this, but the doubts remained.
The agony of his thoughts, full of spectres and nightmarish possibilities, dragged on as he lay there alone. Ellen must have been lost in her thoughts too; the house remained in deadly silence but she’d not gone out. He’d never known time flow so slow. As the sun sank below the horizon the room gradually darkened, its cheap furnishings fading into purple shadows. Normally the onset of evening brought Ellen in to turn on the light. Tonight she didn’t appear. Michael told himself again that his fears were irrational; still they mounted.
Finally, the unbearable tension was broken. It was broken by a series of sounds that he heard every evening. Normally they were innocuous, even comforting. They were the sounds of Ellen making his bedtime cocoa. Tonight those sounds took on a new and terrible portent. It suddenly came to him that this was how Ellen could do it. The cocoa – was it poisoned? Was this how Ellen intended to get rid of him? If she planned to do the deed tonight, as he’d heard, it was the only way he could see.
Though it served no purpose, he listened to the sounds of Ellen preparing the deadly drink. The pouring of milk into the saucepan. The dull chink as the saucepan was placed on the electric hob. The slow susurration of the milk as it came to the boil. Milk pouring into the mug. The chink and rattle of the teaspoon stirring the deadly brew. He didn’t hear any unusual noises. Nothing to indicate any adulteration to his cocoa, but what did that prove? How else could she do it? What did it matter? However she went about it, he was utterly helpless.
Next, footsteps approaching along the corridor. The un-oiled squeak of the opening door. Ellen breezed in, sounding like her usual self despite everything. Had he been able, his body would have shivered as she approached, her perfume wafting across the room, the atmosphere of death. She spoke: “Oh hell Mike, sorry, did I forget to switch the light on. And you must be frozen to death lying there under that fan. Anyway, I’ve brought your cocoa love; I’ll be off to bed myself in a tick.”
Was she trying to kill him? Was he just delusional? He wasn’t sure what to believe. Death could be seconds away and he was helpless. As she did every night, Ellen knelt beside his bed, and lifted his head a little. She held the steaming mug to his lips. Exerting all of his feeble strength he tried to pull away, to no effect. The warm liquid was already against his lips, pouring over the rim of the mug. “What’s the matter love? Drink it; you know you have to keep your fluids up. “This will make you…sleep better.” In that awful moment he heard the brief pause in Ellen’s words and knew his fears were confirmed.
The liquid ran into his mouth. It seemed scalding hot, more so than usual. Was that his overactive imagination? To his horror, his uncontrolled reflexes made him swallow as his mouth filled. Ellen made him gulp down mouthful after mouthful until it was all gone. “Night love, sleep well.”
Ellen’s retreating footsteps, the slam of the door. Was it imagination or was he already feeling drowsy? True sleep had eluded him for months. Was it now going to claim him in a permanent embrace? He fought to keep awake; had to keep awake … His eyelids closed, he couldn’t stop them. Sleep’s black fingers reached out to claim him. Dragging him down, enfolding him in its black depths. Was this it then?
On the verge of surrender, panic struck him and dragged him back to wakefulness. Michael felt a dreadful tightening in his chest. Those bands of steel were wrapping themselves around him again, far tighter than ever before. He was held in a grip so tight he knew it would never let him go. He’d been right; Ellen was trying to kill him. He could feel the poison as it filled his stomach, seeping its way through his body. He was utterly helpless to do anything. His parting cry to the world was a muffled gurgling in his throat; nothing more could he manage.
Michael couldn’t breathe. There were black spots in front of his eyes. The room seemed to recede down a long dark tunnel, as the jaws of a giant vice crushed his chest. The room around him faded away as oblivion grabbed at Michael. Then the fierce pain in Michael’s chest overwhelmed him, driving him fully into the sanctuary of unconsciousness.
“Mrs Merthen, I’ve signed the death certificate, even though it’s something of a mystery to me. Clearly he died of a heart attack, which was something I’d never expected. Despite all his other problems Michael never had any cardio-vascular history. Frankly, I’d thought he’d go on for years, even if he stayed completely bed-ridden.”
Ellen listened to these words from the doctor somberly. “But doctor, so long with no improvement … no way to communicate, it must have weighed on his mind. He was always such an articulate man.”
Inwardly, the doctor was sure he’d missed something. There must have been some cause for the heart attack. Something he hadn’t spotted. He wanted to get out of there before the question of negligence came up. “Yes…, I suppose the stress of his situation must have contributed, but it wasn’t something I’d expected in a man who was so fit before the stroke. Anyway, I must move along, duty calls, but … Ellen … don’t hesitate to call me if there’s anything I can do; anything at all. So very sorry about your loss. Goodbye.”
People react to illness and death in all sorts of ways. Some people focus on other aspects of their lives to keep the tragedy out. As Ellen watched the doctor’s retreating back a gentle little smile played about her lips. Michael, the Michael she knew, had left her eighteen months ago. Caring for what he had become, little more than a vegetable, had been a constant trial. She’d had to make new friends to cope. That was why the Armadale Amateur Dramatic Society had been so good for her. She got such comfort from participation in their rehearsals, especially since Michael’s physiotherapist, Warren Smalle, was a member too. Nice chap, even if he was gay. She smiled again as she thought how their latest production was coming along. It would be her first public performance. Something to look forward to; something to help her forget. She and Warren had two leading parts, she felt quite safe acting alongside him.
She smiled also as she remembered the little portable tape recorder that she kept on the shelf outside Michael’s room. The one she used to play back the rehearsal tapes she brought home after every session. It was such a good way to learn her lines. She always played those tapes good and loud. Such a comfort to have a bit of noise, some voices, round the house. Otherwise there would be dead silence, and she thought that would drive her mad.
What happens when our world shrinks to life in a small room, and our senses make too much of every little thing?