His latest trigger was the small paring knife that he only ever used on cucumbers. It was not the biggest knife, nor the sharpest, nor the fiercest, but there was just something about the way its shallow snout tapered into a fine point that made it the perfect foil for his eyeball, and that was how the tug of war with his compulsions began. It was not so much that he wanted to, more that he just…could. It was an option that once presented would now grip him, tempt him, dare him. There was no one there to stop him. It would be so easy.
Go on, just do it.
As usual, he would throw all the utensils into the bowl first, followed by plates, then saucers. The cleanish stuff. Nothing that would get the water too grim. Meticulously he would wash, rinse, and place the crockery into the drying rack before returning to the bowl to tackle the cutlery. It was only when his rubber fingers were sifting through the lattice of handles, prongs and teeth that the thought of the paring knife would jam that first piton into his mind, beginning its inevitable ascent. The segmented plastic box on the draining board separating knives from forks from spoons, became the focus of his attention, but no matter how careful he was to compartmentalise the silverware he could not follow suit with his thoughts. That familiar handle would eventually seek out his grip and he would have to push down firmly and pin it to the bottom of the bowl, as if it were a darting salmon, quickly rubbing one side with the scourer than flipping it over to repeat. Swiftly he would place it point down in the plastic tidy with the rest of the knives, an interloper amidst the blunt steel utility of its brothers, but he could not stop himself from giving it a staccato side-eye as he ploughed on. He persevered through the rest of the bowl, dealing with all manner of slicing, chopping, peeling, grating metal devilry, any of which would have seemed a more fitting instrument of doom than the plain blade that now festered like a splinter.
He pressed his gloved hands flat against the bottom of the bowl, screwed his eyes tightly shut and waited. The familiar pattern slowly played out in his mind. It began as always with the act itself, experienced from his own point of view, the tip of the blade slowly advancing towards the concave fleshiness of his eye until he felt the initial scratch upon his pupil, the tension as it held firm for a second before giving way to searing pain.
He scrunched his eyelids harder together. Subwoofer feedback rumbled through his eardrums as he rewound his thoughts and looped them forward again. He felt two opposing mantras vying for his attention, the god of chaos and the god of reason summoned simultaneously, each trying to drown out the other. He tried, in vain, always in vain, to switch tracks on his thoughts, but blocking out the grisly details would only force his mind to flit to other avenues of self-inflicted torment, to thoughts of friends or family trying to parse the unfathomable.
Why did he do it?
Because he could. Maybe he should. Maybe he should. Maybe he should…a rattling carriage barrelling round an endless circuit, every sleeper a heartbeat.
After what seemed like hours, lost in the slickness of thoughts that slid across each other like worms, he opened his eyes. Reason had prevailed once again. It always did, or always had so far. The horror lay in the sensation of knowing how close he could come to crossing that boundary line. Maybe next time his heels would not dig in, his weight would instead shift forward, and he would greet the oncoming storm.
The remainder of the day passed without incident; he had managed to circumvent any further triggers without unnecessary adjustments to his routine. Tomorrow would bring further challenges. The daily tube journey to work was 10 hours away but still it reserved a seat at the back of his mind, one foot tapping on cold stone, a slow nod to remind him that it was waiting.
The tube trigger was akin to the paring knife, both pregnant with dread opportunity. The station would be teeming with people, platforms sardine tins. When he heard the train approaching, felt the rush of the wind that heralded a new arrival, he would have his back to the wall, palms flat, concentrating on the sensation of the cool plaster against his skin, as if absorbing it would somehow reverse the rising heat at the base of his skull. The yellow eyes of the hurtling engine would advance, dragging its screeching tail behind it, the furious clattering getting louder and louder. As the black dust rose in the air, he would roll his feet inwards, balancing on the edges, keeping himself off-kilter. He would then be poised before the Rubicon, the corridor of slow-ticking seconds that beckoned him to push away from the wall, to elbow past the bar chart of commuters that lined the edge of the track and throw himself in front of the charging steel. The horror once again existed in the possibility, that in a split second he could change his fate, opposing magnets facing off, testing the invisible suction between them, knowing that pushing them a millimetre closer would force them to snap together. To reverse polarity, he would pick out one of the adverts that lined the wall across the tracks, reading the taglines repeatedly, until the letters began to strobe behind the carriage windows that flew past him. Only then, when the wind had died, the train inert, the throng funnelling through its gaping doors, could he unpeel his palms from the wall and flatten his heels on the tiles.
Three hours closer to another rush hour trigger and he was still awake, restless with fractal thoughts. He lay on his back in bed, fingers locked loosely across his stomach, legs spread wide so his feet could poke out from under the duvet to cool him. Most nights he would experience similar patterns of thought, it was rare he succumbed to sleep without a fight, but this night seemed particularly strewn with rabbit holes for his mind to burrow. Unable to filter his consciousness with any precision he would attempt to give good thoughts weight, put flesh on their bones, whilst starving the black ones, but more often they would prove ephemeral, plates spinning on rickety sticks that he could never reach in time.
As he lay there motionless, contemplating the workday ahead, the zoetrope in his mind whizzed around until a familiar image snapped into focus. There had been so many over the years, some buried deep, occasional acquaintances that rarely resurfaced, others were nightly reruns, repeat offenders that had taken root, their tendrils interwoven with the threads of his thoughts. These intrusions needed no trigger, no muse, they materialised like phantoms, punctuating his dreams.
This time it was the cricket scenario.
It skewed towards the benign end of the spectrum when compared to his darkest, most self-destructive intrusions, more grimly comic in nature but nonetheless unwelcome.
Dressed in whites, he would charge the wicket of a faceless batsman. He wheeled his arm through an arc over his shoulder, and it was only at the exact moment of release that he would realise it was not red leather primed in his fist, but a handful of shit, a full toss detonated by striking willow, pebble dashing them both a moment later.
He knew how things would play out. He would attempt to reform his workday thoughts and that would work for a time, but still the bowler would return to reboot his thundering charge and the shitshow would begin anew. It was useless to resist the stalker’s shadow in his peripheral vision, urging him to cast a glance.
On any other night, he would accept the inevitable interloping and just hope to drift off eventually, but something gave him pause. This time he decided to follow the white rabbit, to try to take control of the uncontrollable. He confronted the thought instead of fending it off, fight instead of flight.
He imagined the feel of close-cropped turf beneath his feet, gaining traction and speed with every stride. As his arm began to wind up, he concentrated on the handful of shit, soft and warm, oozing between his fingers, willing it to harden into a regular ball. Not this time. The batsman struck and he looped back instantly to the approaching crease, thighs pumping hard. Another delivery begat another thunderclap of a strike, over and over. With every iteration, he squeezed his hand a little tighter around the dirt, a mental vice pressing coal into diamond.
On and on he went, determined and relentless. His mind was racing, a conveyor belt, automated and inexhaustible. He could feel a pressure building in his eardrums, as if gaining altitude, an itch deep inside them that could not be soothed or sated. His whole face was creased as he screwed his eyes tightly together, the pressure congruent with a whistling feedback that rose from a breath to a bellow.
All at once he felt separate from his body, head plucked from his shoulders like a daffodil and tossed into the air, until the only sensation he felt was falling endlessly through cavernous blackness. There was no friction, no wind, nothing to gauge speed. He could have been plummeting like hail or floating like snow, but the only way of discerning the two would be how hard he hit the ground.
A loud creak suddenly broke the spell.
This is Part One of the story. Part Two coming soon!