A Bespoke Suffering
By Peter Burton
D’s unconscious was, as always, scanning the background for the presence of a specific anomaly. He liked to imagine that under his awareness an eighties-vision of robotic sight was on the lookout — a radar bar swinging back and forth on the green-screen grid that overlaid his reality, filtering out the marks and blemishes on the walls, the bits and pieces on the floor, as it searched for an intruder it could target with red-is-for-danger crosshairs. What’s that!? It’s ok, it’s just an old hairband; carry on. What about that!? Chipped paint. But this hidden vigilance wasn’t nearly as cool as Robocop. It was more like a virus; a processor-hungry cerebral parasite, growing and multiplying, edging out his sanity.
D was so tired with it all, but he thought he must accept his lot. He believed that if you seek help for a phobia, knowing what the treatment must entail, then you’ve probably not got a phobia at all. He knows people get scared, sure, of heights for instance. You might know what it feels like to have to sit down to get close to an edge, to inch your way towards the drop as your hollow stomach echoes a Darwinian warning. But at times the boundary between such fear and pleasure might blur. You can go on rollercoasters, even up the Eiffel tower, lean out of a second, third, fourth floor window. You can take a cable car to the top of a mountain because you are scared of heights, you do not have a phobia of them. Pleasure can play no part in a phobia.
Did you know some people can’t even say the name of the object of their phobia; they can’t even read the word. This is how bad I’m getting, D had recently admitted to his partner, V.
D had just got back to his flat in Glasgow from work one November evening. It was already dark, so while dropping off his bag in the bedroom he switched on the light. Despite the meagre glow of the cold bulb in its heavy shade, within seconds his subconscious had spotted it, almost camouflaged on the bamboo blinds.
D’s biology boiled over. He flinched as his amygdala threw him a punch with all the force of bad news; the landline ringing in the middle of the night — a panic as old as violence wrestled him into a tumbling, helpless, grasping urgency — witch-dunked in adrenaline, the heart’s muscle filled his chest, his temples, his fists — the flight or fight of horror twitched as repulsion curled and shrunk him. He could almost feel the pressure of his attention magnifying — 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x — narrowing his reality to the only thing he could care about until what it focused on was dealt with. Then the Oh God as his autonomic nervous system handed back the hormone-soaked controls so he could face this new prison of fear. Alone.
People who say face your fears don’t know what fear is, D had once said to the non-phobia suffering V. Seeing a ghost, alone at night in your bedroom; a faceless monk, cloaked and cowled. That’s what the shock is like for me every time I see one. You see, for me, there is no house that isn’t a haunted house; in my world, monsters are real. And they’re everywhere.
D needed a saviour; he needed V. But V wasn’t home until tomorrow, so he couldn’t scream for her help; she wouldn’t be coming to his rescue. He was in, as they say, for the distance; however long that would take.
He could barely look at it, but he had to know where it was. He couldn’t let it escape. Just leave it, they go away on their own, V had said. If only, D had replied, but that’s not an option; they don’t just go away, they just go somewhere else; it could get on me at any time. And I won’t get a trigger warning. I never get a trigger warning. V replied: Well, at least it’s not a poisonous snake like you might get in some countries. D: I’d prefer the snake. Give me the snake every time. You can shut the door on a snake. Call someone out. I can’t do either. V: You’ve got me. D: I know. Thank God. But what about when you’re not there?
D vowed to tape up every gap in this old flat of V’s. They will not get in again, he thought, the stupid fucking disgusting things. He felt sick, shaky, despondent, resigned, terrified — all the helpless feelings of the trapped. The ‘stupid, fucking disgusting thing’ was only about the diameter of a golf ball so it could have been worse.
But then it moved.
Five inches to the left, faster than seemed possible. It obeyed a different physics. The physics of nightmares. D’s skin grew a rash of disgust — they are so much worse when they move. His throat constricted like in a bad dream and held back all sound. He felt his body judder against the incoming violence — a body now separate from his mind, its objectivity suddenly exposed to the world, exposed to the threat of physical harm. He would rather fight a man; he would rather fight a wolf.
Up the blinds it went. Eight more inches. D grabbed the hardback book that was always on his bedside table.
It takes the briefest rest before heading back down the blind, this time at least a foot, staying unnaturally flat as it moved, like a pianist’s hand balancing a coin as it flies through virtuoso runs.
Then it stopped.
It was still on the blinds. D couldn’t do anything because it was still on those damn flimsy bamboo blinds.
Even though D was not religious, he knew that Christianity had different qualities of repentance. Perfect contrition is true repentance motivated by a love of God — it’s genuine remorse for your sinful deeds. Attrition, however, has a different motivation. Attrition comes from the fear of the consequences that your sinful deeds will bring upon you. It is the fear of going to hell.
In a confrontation like D was having, if the outcome goes his way he will find himself repenting. The guilt would be terrible and D will apologise to a God he’s doubts exists, D will pray for forgiveness, D will apologise to life itself, the universe, the laws of physics, cause and effect. But it won’t be real guilt balanced with the pure remorse of perfect contrition, no, it will be the grovel of attrition, because it comes from fear, the fear of vengeance, fear that the whole species, the whole genus, will come to get payback for what he had done to one of its own.
D has to kill them, you see. And he is ashamed of this fact– it’s one of the reasons he’s vegetarian. But if he’s alone, what choice does he have? A glass and a postcard is not an option for D. He can’t get that close — the sight of their movement, the risk of it getting onto him. The thought of what he would do, what he would willingly give up, what he would let happen to himself to avoid getting one of the ‘stupid, fucking disgusting things’ on him terrified him nearly as much the ‘things’ themselves. Once, he had thought seriously of blinding himself so he would never have to see one again.
Autumn is when they come out roaming to find a mate. This is why you see them more in those months. D had heard this fact for the first time on the radio at work a few weeks ago. Despite being repulsed, he had to listen. It was as unpleasantly necessary as eavesdropping on friends talking about you. They were talking to experts for a Halloween special; an entomologist and a psychologist specialising in fear. The bug-man revelled in it, all the grisly details of how the ‘things’ lived, predated, reproduced. But the psychologist was more considered. This is what she said:
Some think phobia sufferers only experience problems when they are in the presence of the object of their phobia. This is simply not true. They spend long hours each day thinking about how and when they might next come across what they fear, the risk factors involved, how they might avoid them; the fear is always there even if the object of it is not. Intrusive scenarios will play out in their imagination; nightmare visions of torture, the worst suffering they can imagine — a bespoke suffering.
To this the radio host had responded: That makes them great targets for pranks then, listeners! The bug-man laughed. The psychologist responded:
Phobia sufferers aren’t just causing a fuss over nothing. Man up — is what I bet someone like you would probably tell them. Phobias are serious conditions, they are serious mental illnesses. Phobias do not only cause disproportionate reactions to a situation, they are life-ruining obsessions in themselves.
The radio host, moving on quickly: Well, let’s lighten things up a bit with some Bobby Picket and his Monster Mash.
D’s problem with the bamboo blinds was that they were not solid enough for D to be assured a clean kill. The only way he could manage to deliver the killing blow was is if the ‘thing’ was on a flat surface big enough for him to whack it with a large, solid object — his hardback book — and run away scraping imaginary creatures from his skin and hair. He can’t even deal with the body — but he must see it to confirm that it has been dispatched.
Judging the risk of failure, and it escaping a failed assassination attempt, he was brought to tears. He was condemned to watch and wait and think about how useless he was by listing everything he could not do: go in an attic, go in a shed, go in a cellar, go camping, go to zoos, go to pet shops, home improvements, visit his family in Australia — in fact, visit anywhere outside of Europe — stay anywhere old fashioned with gaps around pipes and skirting boards, take baths, do gardening, get a job in a warehouse, get an outdoor job, watch nature documentaries, watch certain films… the list went on.
He was sat on the end of the bed. Two hours passed and he was still staring at it. It hadn’t shifted. He needed it to move onto the wall, but it was poised on the blinds with that immortal stillness unique to ancient predators. He wondered if it could feel his gaze. He thought about moving the blind, nudging it a little, but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.
D thought about phoning a friend to plea with them to come to his rescue. Perhaps he could avert his eyes long enough to run to the door. But the risk was too great, not just of it getting away, but of his friends knowing how scared he was, how bad his phobia was. Or rather, not appreciating how serious it was. He didn’t want anyone to know, because he didn’t want anyone to play a prank on him. The previous, he had taped up the letter box on Halloween because he feared trick or treaters would put one — or many ‘things’ — through it. He had left it like that ever since.
Looking at it for this long, you think he would have acclimatised to its presence. That the experience would reduce his fear like exposure therapy is supposed to. But it hadn’t abated one bit.
But they’re harmless, V had said when he first mentioned it to her, you do know that they’re more scared of you than you are of them. Bollocks they are, D said, look, I know that they hold no real danger, that they can do me absolutely no harm. I know all this; I’m rational. But I’m still terrified. Reason achieves absolutely nothing.
At half three in the morning, the lights on, the ‘thing’ unmoved, D, with his feet still dangling over the edge of the bed, stretched out to rest on his elbow. Biology came again, but this time it brought a thickening lethargy for D to sink in to. He rested his head in the hand propped up by his elbow, and by four o’clock, despite all his efforts, he was asleep. At four thirty, he woke.
It was gone.
Wide awake now, he scanned the room. Nowhere. He itched all over. Jumping to his feet he rubbed and shook himself and checked where he was lying. He tiptoed over to the blind and gave it a tentative prod before flinching backwards. Nothing. No movement. He brushed frantically at the hair tickling his face. To maximise the distance from his body to any surface, he hunched over as if the ceiling had become dense woodland full of sharp, poking branches. Moving to the bedroom door, he ducked unnecessarily under it as his head moved from side-to-side to look up at the frame. In the hall he span round, checking everywhere the floor, walls, doors, ceiling. Every edge, every corner. It was nowhere. Yet somewhere. He crept to the front door and reached for the keys in his pocket. He was still wearing everything he had been when he’d come back home. He unbolted the deadlock, unlatched the Yale and darted into the stair well, still hunched as if broken masonry crumbled all around. He closed the door and fumbled only one lock. Down the stairs, two at a time, eyes squinted to blur his view, and out into bitter, dark morning of outside.
FUCK FUCK FUCK
D spent the rest of the early hours roaming the streets. At half past eight he emailed in to work sick; he said he had the flu. Then to the library to wait for V to come home. Maybe she could find it, he hoped. If not, how long would it be before D could return to his flat, before he could sleep in his own bed? How long would it be before he would stop looking under every chair and table, down every side of the bed? When would D stop flinching whenever he moved a box or picked up clothes from the floor? When would he stop looking up and down every wall and into every corner, every edge, each time he stepped into a room? How long would it take for the memory to fade? When would the ‘stupid fucking disgusting thing’ not kidnap every one of his thoughts?
He didn’t have a clue.
Peter Burton is originally from Merseyside but has lived in Glasgow
since 1999. He has been a scientist, a volunteer and is currently
trying his best to write. Peter has been published by the ‘Yellow
Chair Review’ and recently won the ‘Lucent Dreaming’ short story