I don’t know how long I stood there, looking at that little bunch of flowers lying on the mat. Posies. In my mind, I heard the echo of a small group of children playing. “Ring a ring a rosy, a pocket full of posies. Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down!” The old nursery rhyme and its association with the black plague fed my growing dread. The plastic bags were cutting into my fingers. I glanced around me. Was there someone watching? For once, the bushes were silent. Watching, as if waiting to see what I was going to do.
I moved forward, very carefully stepped over the flowers, unlocked the door, and quickly elbowed it shut behind me. I dropped the bags on the bench and went back to lock the door. I leaned against it, fighting the rising panic. Who knew I was here? Was this some sick joke? Had David followed me here after all? I searched my mind to see if I had revealed the address of the house. I hadn’t. He had seen the letter about the money, he hadn’t seen any information about the house. Neither had Brian. So, maybe it was a neighbour. Perhaps it was a welcome to the neighbourhood and I had become so paranoid, I couldn’t see the goodwill behind the gesture.
But there was something else that was disturbing me, some fleeting memory I couldn’t catch, dark and disquieting. “Disturbed is right. They’re just flowers, most women would be delighted to get flowers,” I said to Marmaduke as he wandered out to check out the groceries. But as I spoke, I could hear the tremor in my voice. I couldn’t understand why I was so shaken. Sure, no one was supposed to know I was there. But there could be any number of explanations why they were there. Mistaken address for one thing. A welcome from a neighbour another. Why did I have to make such a drama about it? But, I knew, I just knew. And it wasn’t a good knowing.
I turned back to the door, took a deep breath, unlocked it and looked down at the little bundle. They looked so sad lying on the mat. And if I left them there, they would wilt and die and I couldn’t stand the thought of anything dying around me. Again, I got the sense of an echo. I reached down, picked them up, and once again glanced around to see if any neighbour could see through the bushes, but there were no gaps through the solid green wall. I really should start to trim some of those shrubs back, I thought as I came back inside, locking the door again. Should I throw them away or put them in water. “Poor little things,” I chatted to Marmaduke, “we can’t let them die because your mutter is paranoid.” A shiver ran through me. “I mean, Mamma is paranoid.” I didn’t even want to know where that came from. I lifted out one of the new glasses I had bought out of the box, filled it with water and popped the flowers in.
Yes, I had bought new glasses, two mugs, although why two I couldn’t think. Was I going to go around and knock on neighbours’ doors and invite them in? I don’t think so. I just wanted to be left alone to heal my shattered nerves. I wanted to be calm, to feel in control again. How little we appreciate that sense of control, that your life and your decisions are under your control. Not barrelling along, hurling from side to side, not knowing when you were going to be thrown left or right. Calm, I wanted calm. For that reason, I had bought a small CD player and a pile of CDs. I had bought both classical and popular music depending on my mood at the time. Calming ones and ones that would give me a lift when I felt I needed it.
I carried it through to the lounge, plugged it in and placed a classical CD in and switched it on. That much technology I could handle. The music soared and curled around me and I turned it up so I could hear it from the kitchen as I unpacked the rest of the groceries. I’d even bought some new cutlery. I just couldn’t bring myself to use what was left in the house. I’d packed it all into boxes and it was sitting in the garage waiting to be taken it down the road to the charity shop. Next, I’d have a go at the bedding. My spirits lifted. What fun, shopping for new sheets and towels. I could pick what I liked, not what I thought David would find acceptable. The thought stopped me and I realised that one of the reasons our relationship had seemed to work, was that David needed to be in control and I had needed someone to take control. Until my inheritance, that had changed everything.
I was humming to myself by the time I had finished unpacking my pathetic little amount of food. I looked at the range of tasty items sitting quietly in the middle of empty cupboards. At least the cat food cupboard looked full to bursting. Silly to let myself get so rattled over a bunch of posies. Again, fingers of unease reached for a distant memory. They had triggered something to do with my childhood. Perhaps that’s why they had disturbed me so much, they had brushed memories of my mother and the bad times after she died. Losing your mother is devastating for a child. It may have been a brutal and puzzling murder for adults, a young mother strangled in her kitchen after a violent struggle, but when a child loses a fun-loving, affectionate mother, it forever shreds the fabric of your life. At four years of age, the response of a concerned but distant father unable to cope with his own grief, magnified the loss. Then the final shattering blow to my young life, fleeing Germany to travel what seemed like months to a new country with a new language. Everything was strange, everything was foreign, everything was frightening. Life became unknown, unspoken. Brian tried to comfort me by distracting me, but like our father, he too was not affectionate. I missed her cuddles, snug in the safety of her arms. That love was gone in an instant. How quickly life can change, in an instant.
I stopped myself before I could get weepy. First I would buy new bedding, then I was going to tackle the garden and tame that wildness. Lush I could live with, threatening was not good. Again, I grinned at the melodrama. Since when was a garden threatening?
I had a ball. I passed on the practical, on the safe colours, on the bedding sales and ventured into shops I had never been in before. I kept exploring through bedding from outrageous to downright weird until I fell in love with a set. It was wildly feminine, sumptuous, rich and luxurious. I had never owned anything like it in my life. Just the thought of slipping in between these sheets under this cover would have me racing off to bed straight after dinner. What a glorious nest I had to read in now!
Returning with my new treasures, I scanned the house down the driveway as I passed it to see if I could see any life. No-one was peering out a window, waiting to wave, encouraging a new friend. Although as I had driven past, I noticed the front door was open, but I couldn’t see any sign of anyone at home.
I hesitated as I put my hand out to open the gate. Would there be another offering for me? My heart hammering, I pushed the gate open, and there was nothing, just a mat. The sense of relief was overwhelming and tears pricked my eyelids, my knees almost buckled and I struggled with the bags to the back door. It took several trips back to the car. I’d bought a couple of bottles of wine, two soft, pink, satin-edged towel sets, a set of very modern, chic black vases for the bedroom and a picture for the lounge. I wallowed in the frivolous extravagance of it all. I felt spoiled, special, happy, breathless. It felt good.
By the time I had made the bed and packed all the old linen into boxes, it was getting late in the day. Too late for gardening, I would tackle the garden tomorrow. I positioned my vase set in the bedroom and stood back to admire the sleek style, the starkness of them silhouetted against the window. David would’ve hated them and I loved them. They were me, the new me I was starting to discover under the passive desire for calm, the desire to be good, to obey.
As daylight slowly sifted into dusk, then dark, I sat on the floor of the lounge, my back against the couch, sipping wine and listening to music with Marmaduke on my lap, just thinking things through. This couldn’t go on forever. I had gained a bit of time, but eventually I had to go back to work. I was ploughing through my new savings account at a rate of knots, and I needed to start earning money again. David had control even over my money I had earned. Even though he said it was little more than pocket-money, he decided what my wages went towards. After all, he had created the plan for our financial future. I hadn’t really been that interested, actually. Funny, how I had never seen this before. But even if I had, I would never have anticipated his reaction to the house. What had happened there? This reminded me of Anita, so I picked up my new mobile phone to call her.
“Where are you? What’s happened?” she demanded when she realised it was me calling. “I went to check that you were okay and they told me you were off work for a while. Did something else happen?”
“Oh Anita, I’m so sorry. With everything’s that been happening, it just slipped my mind to let you know I was moving out. And you must promise not to give this number to anyone. I don’t want David to be able to contact me or try to find me. Promise?”
“Of course. Sam, for goodness sake, what’s happened? You talked to me and suddenly, you’re gone!”
So I told her what had happened. And while I didn’t leave anything out, there were some details I skimmed over. I still felt ashamed at David’s taunts. I was crying freely by the time I finished.
There was a moment’s silence. “My God, that is a fast escalation! Are you okay?”
“Actually, I am doing okay, I just don’t feel okay when I think about it. At least I had the house to come to and David doesn’t know where it is. That is if he’s looking for me,” I added. The thought hadn‘t occurred to me before. Was he relieved I was gone? No, we couldn’t have drifted that far apart. Surely. But then I wouldn’t have thought he could do what he did to me either. “Anita, I’m trying to get my head around how he’s changed. What’s happened to him? Have you seen anything like this before?”
Silence. I could almost hear her picking her words, thinking things through. It’s what I liked about her, like most people she had opinions, but unlike most people, she had analysed hers. Thoroughly. Yet again, I wondered how much of a life she had outside of her course books. Dedicated was good, but I suspected Anita was more than a little compulsive in everything she did. Intense was probably how most people would describe her, if they were being polite. But I liked her. I enjoyed her knowledge, her sense of knowing where she was going and her independence. Maybe that was what had attracted me to her as a friend. She was pretty much my opposite in many ways. And for some strange reason, she had chosen me as a friend. It had taken her no time at all to get the story of my mother from me, and yet it was not something I shared with anyone. A lifetime’s habit meant I kept most people at arm’s length. She had a real talent for getting people to confide in her.
“That sudden extreme change of behaviour does sound like one of my clients.” Anita did counselling to earn extra money while she was studying. She said real subjects were so much more educational than case studies in books. She learnt something from every person she worked with. “She had a husband who appeared to change quickly and dramatically, although there is usually a trigger. Manic Depressive was the old name for it, now it’s more politically correct to call it Bipolar Disorder. In her husband’s case, it seemed to come out of nowhere. He became very uncaring, indifferent towards her and the children, only concerned about how they reflected him to the rest of the world. What his marriage, his house, his car said to the world about him. He became very aggressive and the fact that he also became impotent meant that he took his frustration and anger out on her. He believed that it must have been her fault. She didn’t satisfy him sexually any more. She was a mess physically and emotionally by the time she managed to get away. But then he followed her and begged her to come back, offered to go to counselling. She believed him. That was another mistake. It took her years to get away the second time. It’s going to take a long time to get herself back and I’m not sure she ever will. Not only does she have to come to terms with what he did to her and how he treated her and the children, but she now feels enormous guilt up for believing him and going back to him. She has to live with the knowledge that she put both herself and her children at risk. When she left the first time, she was really frightened. But what she finds hard to live with is how easily she was persuaded into going back. And eventually, he just didn’t come home, he left her and the kids without a word. Love and guilt are the tools of manipulation. I think I’ll be seeing her for quite some time to come.”
I felt sick. “But were there any symptoms before? You know, before he changed?”
“Not many that she noticed. Although, looking back she realised that he was a bit of a control freak. He had been dominating and controlling, but wrapped up in looking out for what was best for her and the children. But that describes a big chunk of the male population. She just always believed he was looking out for her and the family. But eventually, she wasn’t allowed to choose her own friends, her clothes or have her own money. In fact, once his illness surfaced, he used to take her purse so she couldn’t go out, she didn’t even have change for the bus. It was all about control. He would turn up and say how much he missed her, cry at the kitchen table. She’d go to make a cup of tea to make him feel better and hear wheels spinning outside as the car took off. He’d call back later to say that he had just been testing her to see how much she cared about him. It was all about him.”
“There are some similarities,” I admitted to both her and myself. “Anita, are you saying that I might not have been safe with him?”
“I haven’t met him and this is not an official diagnosis. But I am saying, that it probably be a good idea to have someone with you when you meet with him again. My guess is that his behaviour will be socially acceptable in front of a witness. Remember, if this is the same illness, he wants everyone to be impressed by him. I would worry if you met him privately. You might end up with a repeat of the same situation. I’d be happy to mediate your next meeting with him. Just let me know.”
I thought about what she said. “ I couldn’t handle meeting him again at the moment, but he’s bound to come into work to try to talk to me.” My mind continued on this train of thought. “I think I’m going to have to get a new job, one he doesn’t know about. He doesn’t know about this area, maybe I could get a job around here until I decide exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Sounds like a sensible plan to me. How about I come around and help you through this? I could come tomorrow after my morning lecture. Do you want me to talk to David? I could make an assessment of the situation.”
“Thanks, I appreciate the offer. But it’s all a bit new and raw. I don’t want to talk about it any further for a while. Trying to describe it is too much like going through it again. But thanks anyway, I’ll let you know if I change my mind.” Something felt a little off about how eagerly Anita had leapt forward to become involved in what was obviously an unhealthy situation.
“Of course, when you’re ready. But I believe it would help. Are you sure you don’t want me to talk to David?”
An arrow of fear shot through me, I found the thought quite disturbing. Certainly, I know he would fiercely resent a stranger poking into our sex life. “No! Thanks for the offer, but no. I want to distance myself for a while until my nerves have settled a bit more.”
“Would you like to meet for a coffee?”
“Tell you what, I’ll call you later but at the moment, I’m so jumpy, I’d spend my whole time looking around to see if you’ve been followed. Talk about paranoid, my heart pounded for ages after I found those flowers.”
“Yes, that was weird. And interesting that it triggered such a strong emotional reaction in you. What about the neighbours? Have you met any of the neighbours yet?”
“No, and I’m not sure I want to. Don’t want to answer any questions. You know I’m not good at lying, and I just don’t want anyone prying.”
“How do you know you’re not good at lying? You’ve never had to really lie before.”
It was a fair point as far as my life with David was concerned. “Well, after we moved here from Germany, we avoided all questions about our life back there. We must have been good at avoiding personal questions. It seemed so important that we not talk about it, that I seemed to have wiped it completely from my memory. I have no memory of living there. Mind you, I was young, only four.”
“I know, I’ve found it quite interesting that you accept how little you know about who you are. Sam, I still think that there’s a connection that your family came from Germany and the man who left you the house has a German name.”
“You know what, Anita, I just can’t think it through at the moment. Maybe I’ll go back to the lawyer and ask more questions later, once I feel more settled.” Once I feel settled. I keep repeating myself, as if my life will start again when I’m ready. Then the obvious question occurred to me. “About David, is there a cure? Can this Bipolar Disorder or whatever it is be treated? With counselling or drugs, or something?”
“Well, assumption number one is that David has Bipolar Disorder. You can’t inflict treatment on him, he has to recognise that his behaviour has changed, recognise that it’s outside of the realms of so-called normal behaviour and want to do something about it. If he desperately wants you back, he may agree to get help. However, remember that the example I’ve told you about, the guy was a real manipulator. What if he agrees just to get you back and then it starts all over again? Rejection may trigger any number of responses. I’d think very carefully about how you’re going to handle him at your next meeting. He may not believe he needs any help at all. In fact, he may think that you’re the problem, not him.”
“But if he’s sick…”
“Yes, but it’s a sickness that could do serious damage to the quality of your life. I think you’re going to have to learn that David’s problem is best staying as David’s problem.”
Talking to Anita had raised more questions than answers. Had David been a latent Manic Depressive? Had the trauma of losing control of me been a catalyst for his change? But when I went down that pathway, it felt like it was my fault. The end of the CD and Marmaduke bumping against my leg, brought me out of my merry-go-round thinking. I seemed to just go round and round. I couldn’t solve anything or fix anything by thinking it over and over. Ultimately, it just made me feel worse, more helpless, more confused. It was time to feed both Marmaduke and myself. Time had slid by and it was much later than I realised. I let Marmaduke outside after his dinner while I continued to tidy up. My appetite had disappeared, which meant making the most of healthy eating. I could work my way through a salad but for some reason, couldn’t face meat. It seemed strange doing dishes for one, putting them away in near-empty cupboards. How tidy, tidy enough for David.
‘I’ve got to stop that,’ I said as I opened the back door again for Marmaduke. Scratching at the door indicated he’d done his business and didn’t want to be out there any longer. ‘I don’t blame you,’ I said as I watched the giant leaves push against each other, moving sluggishly in the slight breeze. ‘It’s not that welcoming out there. Especially in the dark.’ I shivered, shut and securely locking the back door, hanging the key on one of the hooks on the wall.
After having double-checked every window, the back door and the three sets of French doors I had discovered in the middle room, the lounge and the main bedroom, I pulled the curtains tight, switched on my new bedroom lamps and stood back to admire my new look. The doona cover was floral, light and summery. It was all frills and flowers, puffy and soft. I wanted to dive in. It looked so pretty, welcoming and frivolous. I loved it. However, just as I was about to get into bed, I turned and looked at my bedroom door, I still felt vulnerable. I walked over, grabbed the chair in front of the mirror and pulled it down in front of the door. It took a minute before I had positioned it right, before I could tilt it back and hook the top under the door handle. I stood back to admire my handy work. ‘Ridiculous! But whatever makes you feel good, as Anita would say.’
I smiled as I climbed in, and grabbed my book. ‘Thanks Frederick.’ For the first time, I felt good about the whole thing. Marmaduke turned round and round until he settled at my feet, his back against my leg. ‘Now, we’re both happy.’ I stroked his vibrating back and went back to my book. For the first time in ages, I was totally absorbed in the story. My favourite author had a new book out. It was a mixture of history, ghosts and mayhem and I loved it. I stretched and realised that it was getting really late, so, glancing over to check that the chair was still firmly in place under the doorhandle, I turned out the light and snuggled down into the softness of my new bedding. The realisation of how tired I was, came as I sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The noise was so quiet I almost missed it. Instantly awake, my eyes shot open. My heart was pounding, forcing the ice running through my veins. I lay there frozen, desperately trying to recall what it was that had woken me. Rewinding my memory, it was soft, the sound of someone trying the door handle. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t turn over to look at the door. I swear I could feel the presence of another person in the house. The silence was now absolute and I started to wonder if I had dreamt it when there was a movement on the bed. I jumped and lifted my head to see the outline of Marmaduke now sitting on the bed. He was looking at the bedroom door. There was someone there! All the things I could do ran through my head. I should call out. No, I should stay quiet. I could get out the French door. No, I should stay where I was. I listened for any other noises in the house, the wind had died and all I could hear was the deafening pounding of my heart. Then I heard the faint click of a key turning in the lock of the kitchen door. Whoever it was, had locked the door behind them! Or had they locked the door and were waiting inside for me? How had they got in? I knew with absolute certainty that every external door was locked when I came to bed. I would’ve heard if they’d smashed a window to get in. They must have a key! It didn’t occur to me to get the locks changed, or that anyone else might have had a key. But who else would have had it? Had Frederick given a spare key to one of the neighbours to look after the house? But surely they would have come and introduced themselves and returned the key. Not if they were shady, I thought. I didn’t move. What if they came back? I was safest staying where I was. The chair hadn’t moved behind the door, but I now knew that someone had tried the handle of my bedroom door. If someone was intending to burgle the place, they would’ve stayed away from where I was sleeping. Whoever it was, came to my room and tried the door. Was it David? Was this some kind of sick hoax? What did that say about this person’s intentions? I moaned softly, not wanting to explore that avenue of thinking.
I sat frozen, my arms around my knees, my back against the wall, the quilt pulled up to my chin for the rest of the night. It wasn’t until the sun was fully shining that I edged out of bed and slowly pulled back the curtains, half expecting to find an axe murderer outside on the lawn. It took every bit of courage I could muster to pull away the chair and open the door. Nothing. There was nothing there or anything to suggest that there had been someone there. I crept through the house inspecting everything, starting with the back door. It was locked, the key where I had left it on the hook by the light switch. Twice I went through the house and by the time I had been right through it, I was convinced nothing had been touched.
Why would someone come into the house and only try to get into my bedroom? I didn’t like that answer any more than I liked the question. It shook me to my core that someone had a key to the house. I would get the locks changed, all the locks changed. As I walked around testing all the doors, I found to my horror that the back door key fitted the French door locks as well. All the French door locks. That meant that if someone had a key for the back door, they could have got into my bedroom through the French door if they had wanted to. Maybe they hadn’t realised that the same key could open all the doors. But why would someone want to get into my bedroom? I started sobbing, not able to hold it back any more. I felt so exposed, so weak, so shaken. They had to have a key, it was the only explanation. But why, why did someone have a key?
Still hiccupping, I made myself a strong coffee, and took it out through the lounge doors to sit on the small concrete step in the sun. I had a pad and a pen and I started on a list of the things I needed to do today. If I could do something, I wouldn’t feel so helpless. Call a locksmith and change the locks on all the doors was number one. And I think it is about time I met the neighbours. At least I can find out who lives around here, and if I should be nervous about living next to anyone. But what if I am living next to someone weird or shady? What do I do then? Where would I go? It was at moment before I realised that this house was my only answer. I had no relative who I could stay with. Amazing that I could say that when I had an older brother, but staying with Brian wasn’t an option; he was too interested in the money. So, I was committed to staying here. I had to do whatever it took to be safe. And at the very least, I might find out something about Frederick. It was becoming more important to find out about this man. I had the feeling that learning about him would answer everything.
A thump from behind my fence made me jump. I sat there staring at the fence. It sounded as if someone had jumped over the fence, but there was no-one there. I waited. A whooshing sound started, rhythmic and consistent, followed by another thump. It was coming from the other side of the fence. I was not going to sit and be passive any more! I was going to face my fears and find out what was happening. Placing my coffee carefully on the step, I went into the kitchen and came out carrying a kitchen chair. I was going to have a look over the fence and see what was going on. I would not sit in fear any longer.